Otolaryngologic Manifestations of Wegener Granulomatosis 

Updated: May 08, 2015
  • Author: Neil Tanna, MD, MBA; Chief Editor: Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA  more...
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Organ Involvement

Otolaryngologic manifestations of Wegener granulomatosis (WG) are common: more than 70% of presenting symptoms involve nasal, sinus, ear, or tracheal manifestations (see Table 1, below). Upper respiratory tract involvement generally precedes pulmonary or renal involvement. Otolaryngologic presenting symptoms of WG are commonly misdiagnosed as infectious or allergic in etiology. [1, 2]

Table 1. Profile of Organ Involvement in Wegener Granulomatosis* (Open Table in a new window)

Organ Site Frequency at Presentation, % Frequency During Disease Course, %
Upper airway 73 92
Lower airway 48 85
Kidney 20 80
Joint 32 67
Eye 15 52
Skin 13 46
Nerve 1 20
Adapted from Langford and Hoffman [3]

The classic triad of full-blown Wegener granulomatosis (WG) consists of the following:

  • Necrotizing granulomatous inflammation of the upper and lower respiratory tracts
  • Systemic vasculitis of small arteries and veins
  • Focal glomerulonephritis

Not all patients show involvement of all 3 areas, and virtually any organ system can be involved. Both limited and systemic variations of the disease have been described, with including the following:

  • Head and neck alone
  • Head and neck and pulmonary
  • Head and neck, pulmonary, and renal [4, 5]

The clinical course can be rapid or indolent. Constitutional signs and symptoms, such as fever, weight loss, and fatigue, are common, but rarely dominate the clinical picture.

A retrospective study by Lally et al suggested that rituximab significantly reduces the otolaryngologic manifestations of WG. The study, which involved 99 patients with WG, found that the likelihood of active otolaryngologic disease in patients treated with rituximab was 11-fold less than for those who received other treatments, such as methotrexate, azathioprine, cyclophosphamide, or trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole. [6]

For further information on this topic, see the Medscape Reference article Granulomatosis With Polyangiitis (Wegener Granulomatosis), as well as Neurologic Manifestations of Wegener Granulomatosis and Dermatologic Manifestations of Wegener Granulomatosis.

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Sinonasal Involvement

The nose and paranasal sinuses are involved in up to 80% of Wegener granulomatosis (WG) cases. Involvement can vary from mild obstruction to nasal collapse. [7, 1] Sinonasal involvement of WG is often misdiagnosed in its early stages as chronic rhinitis or sinusitis.

Nasal signs and symptoms include mucosal edema with obstruction, rhinorrhea, ulcerations, crusting, and epistaxis. Chronic sinusitis affects 40-50% of patients with sinonasal disease. [7, 2] Secondary true bacterial or fungal sinusitis is common.

Although WG is generally less destructive than sinonasal lymphoma, osteocartilaginous destruction may be revealed by the following:

  • Saddle nose deformity
  • Septal perforation
  • Pain at the nasal dorsum, which suggests chondritis

Osteocartilaginous destruction does not correlate closely with active disease.

A study by Proft et al suggested that olfactory and gustatory function are significantly reduced in individuals with WG. The study included 44 patients with WG who underwent chemosensory function tests, with the senses of smell and taste in these individuals found to be diminished in comparison with healthy controls. The level of olfactory function was similar to that found in rheumatoid arthritis, which, according to the investigators, may indicate that chemosensory impairment is common in systemic autoimmune disease. [8]

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Otologic Involvement

Otologic involvement occurs in 25-40% of patients during the course of Wegener granulomatosis (WG). Otitis media occurs in 40-70% of cases with otologic involvement. Otitis media may be the presenting feature and sole manifestation of WG. It is the most common form of ear involvement in WG and may antedate upper and lower airway disease by months.

Serous otitis media is the most prevalent type and is usually secondary to associated nasal disease and subsequent eustachian tube dysfunction. Up to 30% of patients with WG require tympanostomy during the course of their disease. [7] Suppurative otitis media or mastoiditis may supervene, with symptoms that manifest as chronic otorrhea and postauricular pain.

Patients may have direct involvement by WG of the middle ear and/or mastoid mucosa, with resultant necrotizing granuloma and vasculitis. Primary middle ear involvement produces middle ear granulation tissue, tympanic perforation, and chronic suppurative drainage. It can lead to extensive tympanic scarring or granulomatous occlusion that results in persistent conductive hearing.

Primary middle ear involvement occurs in only 10% of WG patients with otologic involvement. It is sometimes mistaken for otologic tuberculosis. The condition improves only with the use of glucocorticoid or cytotoxic agents.

Edema or erythema of the auricle may occur in 15% of WG patients with otologic signs and symptoms. Pinna involvement resembles relapsing polychondritis. The condition responds to treatment with glucocorticoids or cytotoxic agents.

Hearing loss

Conductive hearing loss is the most common audiologic finding in WG. It is caused by otitis media or, less frequently, by direct WG involvement of the middle ear.

Sensorineural hearing loss is less common. The cause is unclear; suggested mechanisms include cochlear nerve compression by adjacent granuloma, cochlear immune-complex deposition, and local vasculitis that involves cochlear vessels. Sensorineural hearing loss is usually bilateral and profound, with a flat audiometric pattern. Progression is generally rapid; however, the condition is occasionally reversible with glucocorticoids or cytotoxic agents. [7, 4]

Secondary infection extending to the inner ear is an alternative etiology of sensorineural hearing loss.

Vertigo or dysequilibrium

Vertigo or dysequilibrium is rarely reported in WG. Possible causes include the following:

  • Vasculitis of the vestibular inner ear
  • Granulomatous neuritis of the vestibular portion of cranial nerve VIII (CN VIII)
  • Vestibular deposition of immune complexes
  • Central cerebral or cerebellar involvement by WG
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Facial Paralysis

Facial paralysis is exceedingly rare as a presenting sign. It may be associated with primary Wegener granulomatosis (WG) of the middle ear or mastoid. It is caused by necrotizing vasculitis of the vasa nervorum or neuritis due to granulomatous involvement of the middle ear.

Most cases resolve or improve with cytotoxic therapy; however, permanent facial paralysis secondary to delayed treatment has been reported. Facial neuropathy has also been reported in the absence of otologic WG involvement. [4]

Multiple cranial neuropathies may exist. Involvement of cranial nerves (CNs) VI, VII, IX, and XII have been reported in patients with large cranial base lesions and destruction of the petrous portion of the temporal bone.

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Oropharyngeal Involvement

Oral or pharyngeal involvement occurs in up to 6% of patients. Mucosal ulcerations are the most common oral lesions. These are usually buccal but may occur on the tongue, palate, or pharynx (see the image below). Ulcers are persistent, not recurrent.

Wegener granulomatosis. Large ulceration of the ph Wegener granulomatosis. Large ulceration of the pharynx covered with a dense necrotic membrane.

Gingivae are striking red, with variably described white, yellow, or blue areas. Characteristic strawberry gingival hyperplasia has been suggested by some authors to be pathognomonic of WG and may present as an early manifestation of the disease. [4]

There is delayed healing of oral wounds. In time, underlying bone can be involved, leading to tooth mobility or tooth loss.

Less common oral lesions include oroantral fistula, osteonecrosis of the palate, and labial mucosal nodules.

Oral biopsies are infrequently positive, but they remain important in the role of early diagnosis. [7, 5] Histologic features may be nonspecific. Characteristic WG features of vasculitis and necrotizing granulomas are typically lacking on biopsy findings. Instead, pseudoepitheliomatous hyperplasia, multinucleated giant cells, and inflammatory infiltrates are more common.

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Laryngotracheal Involvement

Manifestations of laryngotracheal involvement in Wegener granulomatosis (WG) may range from subtle hoarseness to stridor and life-threatening obstruction. Subglottic stenosis is the most characteristic and serious laryngeal lesion. It occurs in 16-20% of all patients with WG and up to 50% of pediatric patients with WG, [9] and can be the only presenting manifestation of WG.

Some researchers have recommended that all patients with subglottic stenosis be evaluated for the presence of cytoplasmic antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies (c-ANCA) and perinuclear ANCA (p-ANCA) as part of the routine laboratory workup.

Most patients with subglottic stenosis have generalized WG. Although WG is known to contribute to airway narrowing, the disease course of subglottic stenosis is thought to run independent of that involving WG.

The immediate subglottic region of the trachea is particularly susceptible to narrowing secondary in part to laryngopharyngeal reflux, limited blood supply, and turbulent airflow. This narrowing of the upper airway is associated with scarring and can result in airway compromise. Chronic scarring is thought to be the result of a recurrent insult such as laryngopharyngeal reflux in the presence of WG, rather than ongoing microvasculitis alone.

Direct laryngoscopy may show edematous mucosa or bland scar. Biopsy specimens generally demonstrate only fibrosis and inflammation, without evidence of vasculitis. Subglottic specimens have been reported as showing evidence of WG in 5-15% of biopsies. [9]

Only 20% of involved cases diminish with immunotherapy; 80% remain fixed or irreversible because of chronic fibrosis. Treatment includes intralesional corticosteroids, tracheotomy, or surgical reconstruction. Methylprednisolone acetate injection combined with serial passage of blunt dilators has been shown to be another effective means of managing subglottic stenosis that is refractory to medical treatment. [9]

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Salivary Gland Involvement

Involvement of the salivary glands is rare in Wegener granulomatosis (WG). [5] It typically occurs early in the course of the disease.

Extensive involvement of the salivary glands may produce sufficient destruction to simulate Sjögren syndrome. When involved, submandibular or parotid glands not uncommonly exhibit massive enlargement.

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Differential Diagnosis

Diagnostic considerations include the following:

  • Strawberry gums
  • Gingival hyperplasia induced by drugs (eg, phenytoin anticonvulsants, some calcium channel blockers, cyclosporine, conjugated estrogens)
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Churg-Strauss syndrome
  • Polyarteritis nodosa
  • Scurvy (vitamin C deficiency)
  • Neoplastic processes (squamous cell carcinoma, leukemia, Kaposi sarcoma)
  • Nasal substance abuse
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