Branchial Cleft Cyst Treatment & Management

Updated: Jun 02, 2020
  • Author: Chih-Ho Hong, MD, FRCPC; Chief Editor: William D James, MD  more...
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Medical Care

Antibiotics are required to treat infections or abscesses related to branchial cleft cysts.


Surgical Care

Surgical excision is definitive treatment for branchial cleft cysts. [14] A series of horizontal incisions, known as a stairstep or stepladder incision, is made to fully dissect out the occasionally tortuous path of the branchial cleft cysts. Branchial cleft cyst surgery is best delayed until the patient is at least age 3 months. Definitive branchial cleft cyst surgery should not be attempted during an episode of acute infection or if an abscess is present. Surgical incision and drainage of abscesses is indicated if present, usually along with concurrent antimicrobial therapy.

The traditional surgical approach has the main downfall of relatively significant scarring. Alternatives to the open surgical method have been proposed, including a retroauricular approach, a facelift approach, and endoscopic-assisted removal. All of the newer surgical methods may be limited in the full visualization of the lesion. A case-controlled study suggested that an endoscopic retroauricular approach may provide good surgical clearing with minimal scarring for second branchial cleft cysts. [15, 16]

Sclerotherapy with OK-432 (picibanil) has been reported to be an effective alternative to surgical excision of branchial cleft cysts by some groups, [17] including those using ultrasound guidance. [18]



Referral to an otolaryngologist for surgical excision is indicated.



Untreated branchial cleft cyst lesions are prone to recurrent infection and abscess formation with resultant scar formation and possible compromise to local structures.

Complications of surgical excision of branchial cleft cysts result from damage to nearby vascular or neural structures, which include carotid vessels and the facial, hypoglossal, vagus, and lingual nerves.

There are rare case reports of malignancies having been identified in branchial cleft lesions, including branchiogenic carcinoma and papillary thyroid carcinoma.


Long-Term Monitoring

Postoperatively, patients should be monitored for branchial cleft cyst recurrence. Because some patients have bilateral branchial cleft cyst lesions, the contralateral side should be examined.