Differential diagnosis of cystic neck lesions

Ann Otol Rhinol Laryngol. 2011 Jun;120(6):409-13. doi: 10.1177/000348941112000611.


Objectives: In patients less than 40 years of age who present with an upper anterior triangle cystic mass, branchial cyst is the presumed clinical diagnosis. Squamous cell malignancy is the important differential diagnosis in a patient more than 40 years of age. We sought to identify the range of lesions that can be clinically mistaken for, and removed as, branchial cysts.

Methods: We performed retrospective reviews of 29 neck masses removed as branchial cysts and 47 solitary neck masses diagnosed as cancer between January 2003 and January 2008 across two teaching hospitals in Leeds, England.

Results: Of the 29 lesions removed, 23 (79.3%) were confirmed to be branchial cysts. The remainder comprised 2 thyroid papillary carcinomas (6.9%) and 4 benign lesions (13.6%; laryngocele, neurilemmoma, parotid gland cyst, and cystadenoma). Of the 47 cases of metastatic cancer, 3 lesions (6.4%) were clinically mistaken as branchial cysts but were subsequently diagnosed as squamous cell carcinomas.

Conclusions: When presented with a solitary lateral cystic mass, clinicians should consider the possibility of squamous cell carcinoma in patients more than 40 years of age, and thyroid papillary cancer should be considered particularly in the younger age groups. In our series, 30.8% of the neck lesions believed to be branchial cysts in patients over 40 were malignant, in contrast to 5.3% of those lesions in patients under 40.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Biopsy, Fine-Needle
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / diagnosis*
  • Cysts / diagnosis*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Young Adult