What is cauliflower ear?
- Cauliflower ear is an acquired deformity of the outer ear. It is usually due to blunt trauma to the ear.
- When the cartilage of the ear is injured by trauma or inflammation, the blood supply from the skin is disrupted, often forming a large pocket of blood, called a hematoma. As the injury to the ear heals it can shrivel up and fold in on itself and appear pale, giving it a cauliflower-like appearance, hence the term cauliflower ear.
- Wrestlers, boxers, and martial artists in particular are susceptible to this type of injury, therefore, cauliflower ear is also sometimes called boxer's ear or wrestler's ear.
- In 2014, UFC fighter Leslie Smith's cauliflower ear exploded after a direct hit from opponent Jessica Eye, causing the fight to stop. The fighter had an existing cauliflower ear that was intermittently being drained of fluid before the fight, but the ear was further damaged by the intense blow, causing it to bleed profusely.
What causes cauliflower ear?
The ear is vulnerable to blunt trauma. When the ear is struck and a blood clot develops under the skin, or the skin is sheared from the cartilage, the connection of the skin to the cartilage is disrupted, causing cauliflower ear.
The cartilage of the ear has no other blood supply except that supplied by the overlying skin. When the skin is pulled from the cartilage, and/or separated from the cartilage by blood (as with accumulated blood from injury or inflammation, or infection), the cartilage is deprived of important nutrients. Ultimately, the cartilage dies and the risk of infection is increased.
Untreated, the ear cartilage contracts on itself forming a shriveled up outer ear, known as the cauliflower ear deformity. Once cartilage death and scarring (fibrosis)
occurs, the resulting deformity is generally permanent. The ear may also appear pale, due to loss of blood supply. In some cases, cosmetic procedures may improve the appearance of the ear.
Cartilage damage may also result from piercing the upper ear in the cartilage. Piercing can lead to a type of ear cartilage infection called auricular perichondritis, which can result in cauliflower ear. An even more rare cause of cauliflower ear is from the inflammation of cartilage in relapsing polychondritis.
Picture of a normal ear, and cauliflower ear
The anatomy of the ear can be a little confusing, especially since the ear is
responsible not only for hearing, but also for balance.
There are three components to the ear: the outer ear, the middle ear and the
inner ear. All three are involved in hearing but only the inner ear is
responsible for balance.
What are the symptoms of cauliflower ear?
Because cauliflower ear is usually due to trauma, the symptoms depend on the severity of the trauma to the ear.
Common symptoms of acute cauliflower ear
- Deformity of the curvature of the ear
Severe symptoms of cauliflower ear
If the damage from the trauma is severe and medical attention should be sought immediately. Once scarring and deformity of the cartilage occurs, there may be no symptoms.
What is the treatment for cauliflower ear?
The goals of treatment are to prevent permanent damage to the cartilage by draining blood from the hematoma, treating any infection, and reducing inflammation in order to re-establish the connection of the skin to the underlying cartilage.
Antibiotics are prescribed to prevent infection.
Patients may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor (otolaryngologist) or plastic surgeon to treat this deformity and assure proper healing.
Cauliflower ear repair consists of draining accumulated blood (the hematoma) through an incision in the ear and applying a compressive dressing to sandwich the two sides of the skin against the cartilage.
What is the prognosis for cauliflower ear?
When treated aggressively and promptly, cauliflower ear deformity is unlikely. Any delay in diagnosis leads to more difficulty in managing the problem, increased chances for insufficient blood supply to the ear cartilage, and escalated risk of deformity.
See a medical illustration of cauliflower ear plus our entire medical gallery of human anatomy and physiology
How can cauliflower ear be prevented?
Protective headgear and helmets worn during sporting activities can help prevent this condition. Helmets can also protect from serious head injury.
See a doctor (preferably an otolaryngologist or plastic surgeon) for definitive care as soon as possible after the injury.
Medically Reviewed on 8/28/2018
Medically reviewed by LaTonya B. Washington, MD; Board Certification in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics
REFERENCE: Hanif, J. et al. "High" ear piercing and the rising incidence of perichondritis of the pinna. BMJ 2001. 322 : 906 doi: 10.1136/bmj.322.7291.906