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Cystic Hygroma Treatment & Management

  • Author: Jason L Acevedo, MD; Chief Editor: Ravindhra G Elluru, MD, PhD  more...
Updated: Mar 11, 2015

Medical Care

Although some authors have reported watchful waiting for cystic hygroma (CH), this should be considered only in patients who are asymptomatic. Medical treatment of CH consists of the administration of sclerosing agents, such as OK-432 (an inactive strain of group A Streptococcus pyogenes), bleomycin, pure ethanol, bleomycin, sodium tetradecyl sulfate, and doxycycline.[10]

An infected CH should be treated with intravenous antibiotics, and definitive surgery should be performed once the infection has resolved. Incision and drainage or aspiration results in only temporary shrinkage, and subsequent fibrosis can further complicate the resection. Radiotherapy has not been demonstrated to be effective. The preferred treatment of all CH is surgical resection. Only resection can truly offer the potential for cure.


Although not currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), OK-432 has been reported to successfully treat CH.[11] The mechanism of action is proposed to be an inflammatory response to the inactive bacteria, leading to fibrosis of the hygroma. OK-432 may be a viable option for large unilocular cysts.

Currently, OK-432 is available in the United States only by protocol. It does not work well for small cysts.[12] Because the procedure for using OK-432 involves aspiration prior to injection of the sclerosant, some have hypothesized that the true effect is from the aspiration.


Bleomycin is considered a poor choice because of its toxicity (pulmonary fibrosis); CH is a benign disease, and other less toxic treatment options are available. Niramis et al studied 70 patients who underwent sclerotherapy with bleomycin; 83% obtained an excellent or good result, 43% had adverse reactions, and three patients died.[13]

Sainsbury et al studied 75 patients, 83% of whom had a complete or significant response. Five adverse reactions were reported, with no severe morbidity or mortality (to include pulmonary fibrosis).[14]


Absolute alcohol as a sclerosing agent has been used with some success in some patients; alcohol works well in vascular malformations. Imperizzilli et al studied computed tomography (CT)-guided ethanol injection and obtained complete resolution in seven of eight patients without complications.[15]

Interferon alfa-2a

This has been used in the treatment of hemangiomas, and its use has been proposed in lymphangiomas. However, its efficacy has never been documented, and it carries a serious side-effect profile.

Fibrin sealant

The use of a fibrin sealant after aspiration of CH has been reported in the literature.


Doxycycline has been reported as a potential sclerotherapy agent, with both safety and efficacy. Like most other sclerosant agents, it has shown the highest efficacy in macrocystic lesions and the lowest efficacy in microcystic ones.[16]


A limited case series has been reported using sildenafil for severe lymphatic malformations. A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial is under way.[17]


Surgical Care

The mainstay of treatment of CH is surgical excision.[18] Although surgery is the criterion standard for treatment, both the operating team and the family of the patient should go forward with the knowledge that CH is a benign lesion. If acute infection occurs prior to resection, surgery should be delayed at least 3 months.

The surgical team should attempt to remove the lymphangioma completely or, failing that, to remove as much as possible, sparing all vital neurovascular structures. Complete excision has been estimated to be possible in roughly 40% of cases.

CHs are ideally removed in one procedure because secondary excisions are complicated by fibrosis and distorted anatomic landmarks.

Microcystic lesions are much more difficult to remove because of their intimate association with nearby tissues. Laser therapy is a recent advancement in the treatment of microcystic lesions.

The exceptions to excision at the time of diagnosis are few and include premature infants who are small in size and those with involvement of crucial neurovascular structures that are small and difficult to identify (eg, facial nerve). If no airway obstruction is present, surgery can be delayed until the child is aged 2 years or older, especially when the operation will be around the facial nerve in the parotid area.

Signs of airway obstruction necessitate surgical evaluation at the time of diagnosis. In emergency situations, aspiration with an 18-gauge or 20-gauge needle may obviate the need for an emergency tracheostomy.

Although traditional wisdom has dictated that lymphatic malformations not be aspirated, a study by Burezq et al documented success with serial aspiration of CH.[19] In this series, 14 patients were treated with aspiration alone (three needed multiple aspirations), with a mean follow-up of 5.75 years. No failures were reported. This technique may hold promise for the future management of CH. Other authors contend that aspiration has no role and believe that aspiration is often followed by recurrence, hemorrhage, or infection.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) has been advocated for use with intraoral lymphatic malformations, especially microcystic lesions. Kim et al reported high long-term success rates with RFA (median follow-up, 47 months), with 81% of patients not requiring further treatment.[20]

Magnetic resonance–controlled laser-induced interstitial thermotherapy is a newer therapy that has been proposed for treatment of lymphangiomas.

CH can present on routine prenatal ultrasonography as a large obstructing airway mass, as can other pathologic conditions (eg, teratoma or rhabdomyosarcoma). If such a mass is visible on ultrasonography, MRI should be performed to delineate the mass further. In these cases, a multispecialty team, including a high-risk obstetrician, pediatric otolaryngologist, pediatric surgeon, and neonatologist, should be present at the ex-utero intrapartum treatment (EXIT) procedure.

A planned cesarean delivery is performed, and intubation or tracheostomy is used to establish an airway. Extracorporal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) should also be available. Excision of the CH is delayed until the child is stable. Intrauterine cyst aspiration to facilitate vaginal delivery has been reported in the literature.



Depending on the anatomic location of the lesion, referral to a surgeon or surgical specialist is appropriate. In patients with CH of the head and neck, referral to an otolaryngologist is appropriate.



No special dietary requirements are necessary for patients with CH.



Patients with CH should be directed to avoid direct trauma to the area because intralesional bleeding or infection can be precipitated by trauma.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Jason L Acevedo, MD Otoloaryngologist-Head and Neck Surgeon

Jason L Acevedo, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Rahul K Shah, MD, FACS, FAAP Associate Professor of Otolaryngology and Pediatrics, Associate Surgeon-in-Chief, Medical Director, Peri-operative Services, Children's National Medical Center, George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences; Attending Physician, Department of Otolaryngology, Children's National Medical Center

Rahul K Shah, MD, FACS, FAAP is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Medical Quality, American Association for Physician Leadership, American College of Surgeons, Triological Society, Massachusetts Medical Society, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Holly L Neville, MD Associate Professor of Clinical Surgery, Division of Pediatric Surgery, University of Miami, Leonard M Miller School of Medicine

Holly L Neville, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Surgeons, American Pediatric Surgical Association, Association of Women Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

John E McClay, MD Associate Professor of Pediatric Otolaryngology, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Children's Hospital of Dallas, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

John E McClay, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy, American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Ravindhra G Elluru, MD, PhD Professor, Wright State University, Boonshoft School of Medicine; Pediatric Otolaryngologist, Department of Otolaryngology, Dayton Children's Hospital Medical Center

Ravindhra G Elluru, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Bronchoesophagological Association, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, Association for Research in Otolaryngology, Society for Ear, Nose and Throat Advances in Children, Triological Society, American Society for Cell Biology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Orval Brown, MD Director of Otolaryngology Clinic, Professor, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas

Orval Brown, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Bronchoesophagological Association, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Society of Pediatric Otolaryngology, Society for Ear, Nose and Throat Advances in Children, and Society of University Otolaryngologists-Head and Neck Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

William K Chiang, MD Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, New York University School of Medicine; Chief of Service, Department of Emergency Medicine, Bellevue Hospital Center

William K Chiang, MD, is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, American College of Medical Toxicology, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Michael D Poole, MD, PhD Consulting Staff, Georgia Ear Institute

Michael D Poole, MD, PhD, is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American College of Surgeons, and American Society for Microbiology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Reconstruction of CT in sagittal dimension. This patient was intubated because of respiratory distress caused by the large lymphatic malformation.
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