60 year old female presents to the emergency department with increased pain in her right ear and decreased hearing. She denies ear discharge. She endorses vertigo for 7 months that is precipitated by sudden changes in head position. On physical exam, the right ear canal is obscured by a foreign body. Ear swab is positive for growth on fungal culture.
Image 1. Salt and pepper fungal colonies isolated from ear swab.
The identification of Aspergillus niger is made based on macroscopic colony morphology and microscopic structures. On the potato flake agar, Aspergillus niger grows salt and pepper colonies. For microscopic examination, a slide is made by touching the colonies with a piece of clear tape, putting a drop of lactophenol analine blue on a glass slide, and placing the tape on the slide. Microscopically, Aspergillus niger appears as septate hyphae with long smooth unbranched conidiophores. Compared with other Aspergillus species, the phialides of niger cover the entire vesicle and form a “radiate” head, which splits into several loose columns.
Aspergillus is a common mold that lives both indoors and outdoors. The Aspergillus genus is composed of 180 species, among which 34 are associated with human disease.1 A. fumigatus is the most common cause of aspergillosis syndromes. A. terreus is a species of particular concern due to its resistance to amphotericin. An invasive disease due to A. terreus has a poor prognosis.1
Healthy individuals inhale hundreds of conidia of Aspergillus per day without illness. However, people with a weakened immune system or lung disease are at higher risk of developing infections from inhaling the condidia. Presentations of aspergillosis range from allergy to fungal balls, to dissemination.1 Examples of aspergillosis include asthma, allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis, and allergic sinusitis.1
Invasive otitis externa due to Aspergillus is a rare, potentially life-threatening invasive fungal infection affecting immunocompromised patients.2 It spreads from the external auditory canal to adjacent anatomical structures such as soft tissues, cartilage, and bone.2 The condition can lead to osteomyelitis of the base of the skull with progressive cranial nerve palsies, irreversible hearing, and neurological impairment.2 The infection can be treated with antifungals.
- Barnes PD, Marr KA. Aspergillosis: spectrum of disease, diagnosis, and treatment. Infect Dis Clin North Am. 2006 Sep;20(3):545-61, vi.
- Parize, P. et al. Antifungal Therapy of Aspergillus Invasive Otitis Externa: Efficacy of Voriconazole and Review. Antimicrobial agents and chemotherapy. 2018 April; 62(4). http://aac.asm.org/content/53/3/1048.long
-Ting Chen, MD is a 1st year anatomic and clinical pathology resident at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
-Christi Wojewoda, MD, is the Director of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an Associate Professor at the University of Vermont.