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Branchial cleft cyst

A branchial cleft cyst is a lump that develops in the neck or just below the jawbone. It is a type of birth defect.


Branchial cleft cysts form during development of the embryo. They occur when tissues in the neck area (branchial cleft) fail to develop normally.

The birth defect may appear as open spaces called cleft sinuses, which may develop on one or both sides of the neck. A branchial cleft cyst may form from fluid drained from a sinus. The cyst or sinus can become infected.


The cysts most often occur in children. In some cases, they may develop in adults.

Symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Small pits, lumps, or skin tags at either side of the neck or just below the jawbone
  • Fluid drainage from a pit on the neck
  • Noisy breathing (if the cyst is large enough to block part of the airway)

Exams and Tests

The health care provider may be able to diagnose this condition during a physical examination. The following tests may be done:

  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Ultrasound


Antibiotics will be given if the cyst or sinuses are infected.

Surgery is generally needed to remove a branchial cyst to prevent complications such as infections. If there is an infection when the cyst is found, surgery will likely be done after the infection is gone. If there have been several infections before the cyst is found, it may be harder to remove.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Surgery is usually successful, with good results.

Possible Complications

The cyst or sinuses may become infected if not removed, and repeat infections may make surgical removal more difficult.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you notice a small pit, cleft, or lump in the neck or upper shoulder of your child, especially if fluid drains from this area.

Alternative Names

Cleft sinus


Loveless TP, Altay MA, Wang Z, Baur DA. Management of branchial cleft cysts, sinuses, and fistulae. In: Kademani D, Tiwana PS, eds. Atlas of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 92.

Rizzi MD, Wetmore RF, Potsic WP. Differential diagnosis of neck masses. In: Lesperance MM, Flint PW, eds. Cummings Pediatric Otolaryngology. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 19.

Review Date 11/3/2015

Updated by: Kimberly G Lee, MD, MSc, IBCLC, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Neonatology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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