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What Causes Ear Discharge? Your Symptoms Explained

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Last updated April 14, 2022

Ear discharge quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your discharge.

Ear discharge is fluid located in the ear that can have many different characteristics. While white yellow earwax is an expected and healthy ear discharge, abnormal discharge colors can be caused by an ear infection affecting the ear canal, or a ruptured eardrum. Read below on major categories of causes and conditions you should be aware of. We also cover treatment options and signs that a visit to the doctor’s office is needed.

Ear discharge quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your discharge.

Take ear discharge quiz

Your ear discharge symptoms explained

If you're going about your day, and suddenly feel a liquid, wet, or dripping sensation from your ear, it is likely ear discharge. Ear discharge, also called otorrhea, is any fluid coming from the ear. Earwax is a normal discharge made from an oil naturally produced in the ear and ensures that dust and bacteria don't enter the ear canal. Blood or other fluids may enter the ear in cases of eardrum rupture. Therefore, you should never ignore ear discharge symptoms. They could be a sign of a treatable infection or a symptom of more serious trauma.

Common characteristics of ear discharge

If you're experiencing ear discharge, it can likely present with:

  • White, yellowish, or grey discharge
  • Foul-smelling discharge
  • Occasional pain
  • Fever, if due to infection
  • Numbness or tingling sensation

Ear discharge causes

The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.

Infectious causes

Infections may result in ear discharge, such as the following.

  • Swimmer's ear: Bacteria may colonize in the ear from contaminated water and cause inflammation and fluid buildup. The discharge is normally foul-smelling and yellow or green in color.
  • Cold or flu: A simple bacterial or viral infection may cause ear discharge. Infectious agents can enter the ear canal from the nasal passage or throat.

Traumatic causes

Traumatic causes may result in ear discharge, such as the following.

  • Presence of foreign body: Trauma can occur when you push a swab or foreign object too hard into your ears and result in discharge.
  • Change in pressure: A sudden increase in pressure, such as on an airplane or when you quickly reach a high altitude, may cause your eardrum to rupture and produce a discharge.
  • Loud noises: Significantly loud noises may result in discharge.

Medical causes

Medical causes of ear discharge include the following.

  • Mastoiditis: This condition refers to the inflammation of the jaw, which is near the ear. Excessive fluids may result in and discharge.
  • Inflamed adenoids: If there is fluid coming from the Eustachian tubes, this will lead to inflamed adenoids, infection, and discharge.

Ear discharge quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your discharge.

Take ear discharge quiz

Swimmer's ear (otitis externa)

Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the canal which runs from the eardrum to the opening of the ear.

It is caused by anything that introduces bacteria, fungus, or a virus into the canal. Water that stays inside the ear after swimming is a common cause, as are cotton swabs used for cleaning or earpieces that create irritation.

Most susceptible are children, because they have narrower ear canals that do not drain well.

Early symptoms include redness, itching, and discomfort inside the ear canal, sometimes with drainage of clear fluid.

Even mild symptoms should be treated because they can quickly get worse. The infection can spread and intensify, becoming very painful with increased drainage, swelling, fever, and loss of hearing.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination of the ear canal. Lab tests may be done on a sample of the discharge from the ear.

Treatment includes having a medical provider clean the ear canal of debris and discharge, and a prescription for antibiotic and/or steroid eardrops.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fever, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, jaw pain, ear pain that gets worse when moving

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Middle ear infection

Middle ear infection, also called acute otitis media, is a bacterial or viral infection of the air-filled space behind the eardrum. An ear infection is usually secondary to a cold, allergy, or influenza.

Young children are most susceptible due to weaker immune systems and to the small size and shape of the Eustachian tubes in the ears. Children in group care settings are more exposed to colds and flu and therefore more prone to ear infections.

Symptoms include ear pain due to inflammation; drainage of fluid from the ear; and sometimes hearing difficulty. Children may cry, run a fever, and pull at the affected ear.

If symptoms last more than a day, a medical provider should be seen. Long-lasting or repeated ear infections can lead to hearing damage and to speech and learning problems.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Middle ear infections often clear up on their own and antibiotics may only be needed for infants and severe cases. Warm compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers can be used. Do not give aspirin to children.

Foreign body in external ear

An ear foreign body is anything that gets stuck in the ear canal other than earwax. This may include food, toy pieces, beads, buttons, disk batteries, cotton swab, paper, or insects. Foreign bodies are usually trapped in the outer ear canal.

You should visit your primary care physician within the next 24 hours to have the foreign object removed. This is not a medical emergency requiring a visit to the ER, but the procedure should be performed by a medical professional to avoid damage to the eardrum. It is important to remove the object in a timely manner, however, to prevent discomfort and the possibility of an infection.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: ear fullness/pressure, ear discharge, pain in one ear canal, bleeding from the ear, pus leaking from the ear

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Earwax blockage

Ear wax production is a normal process, as the body makes wax to protect the ear from infection. Sometimes ear wax can build up and cover the eardrum, which is a thin layer of skin that stretches across the end of the ear canal and picks up sound from outside. Ear wax buildup has nothing to do with poor hygiene, and it is not possible to prevent a build-up by washing.

You should go to a retail clinic to be treated. You should NOT try removing the wax with cotton swabs, because you run the risk of pushing the ear wax further into the ear canal, and potentially damaging the ear canal or eardrum. A variety of ear drops exist that can be bought at the pharmacy, such as Debrox, Murine, and Cerumenex. You may also use other remedies such as mineral oil, baby oil, or glycerin ear drops instead of brand-name drops.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: dizziness, dry cough, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, ringing in the ears

Symptoms that never occur with earwax blockage: swollen ear, fever

Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit

Cholesteatoma (a non-cancerous growth in the ear)

Cholesteatoma is a type of skin growth located in the ear, behind the eardrum. While it can be present from birth, it is usually caused by an ear infection. Symptoms include dizziness, hearing loss and pressure in the affected ear, and discharge from the affected ear.

You should consider visiting a medical professional in the next week or two to discuss your symptoms. Cholesteatoma can be evaluated with a review of your symptoms and an ear exam. Imaging such as a CT scan may be performed to rule out other conditions. Once diagnosed, it can be treated with ear cleaning, antibiotics, and eardrops. Surgery to remove the growth may be needed in some cases.

Ear discharge quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your discharge.

Take ear discharge quiz

How to treat ear discharge

When it is an emergency

If you notice any of the following with your ear discharge symptoms, seek medical treatment immediately.

  • High fever
  • Bleeding from the ear canal
  • Clear or bloody discharge after a head injury
  • Pink or red swelling directly behind the ear
  • Sudden hearing loss

When to see a doctor

If your ear discharge is mild, you can wait 24 hours to see if your condition improves before heading to the doctor.

  • Ear drops: Commonly prescribed to reduce inflammation and swelling seen in cases of trauma and infections.
  • Paper patch: These patches are used to restore normal hearing in cases of excessive discharge due to a perforated eardrum. This patch will keep the eardrum closed while healing.
  • Antibiotics: If you have swimmer's ear, antibiotics can prevent widespread infection.
  • Surgery: A procedure may be necessary to repair the eardrum after trauma.

Prevention

If you regularly experience ear discharge, keep the following in mind.

  • Don't use sharp objects when cleaning your ears
  • Use muffs when riding an airplane
  • Dry your ears well after swimming
  • Avoid smoking as it can induce ear infection

FAQ's about ear discharge

What causes ear drainage?

Most often, fluid leaking out of your ear is earwax. Ear drainage can be due to a ruptured eardrum from trauma, foreign objects, or middle ear infection. In this case, you will see a white, slightly bloody, or yellow discharge from the ear. Another common cause is infection or irritation of the external ear canal. In rare cases, it can occur after a significant skull injury.

What causes fluid in the ear?

Fluid produced by the external ear canal can be due to infections, often called Swimmer's ear (otitis externa). Fluid in the middle ear can be due to an acute middle ear infection (acute otitis media) and may persist for weeks to months after the acute symptoms have resolved (otitis media with effusion). Chronic fluid buildup is possible in the middle ear (chronic otitis media with effusion).

Does a ruptured eardrum cause discharge?

Yes. You can perforate your eardrum when a substantial amount of fluid accumulates behind it. The fluid accumulation can be the result of infections, skull fractures, or direct perforation from external objects. Once the eardrum is ruptured, the fluid leaks out as discharge.

Is ear discharge a sign of an ear infection?

Not necessarily. Sometimes ear discharge can simply be earwax. In other cases, trauma or foreign objects can puncture the eardrum, resulting in ear discharge.

What is clear or bloody discharge a sign of?

Clear discharge can be cerebrospinal fluid leaking result from a skull fracture or water from recent swimming or bathing. Bloody discharge can be due to trauma to the external ear canal, eardrum, or skull. Purulent discharge can be a sign of acute or chronic infection of the middle ear (otitis media), external ear canal (otitis externa), or a perforated eardrum.

Questions your doctor may ask about ear discharge

  • How would you describe what is leaking from your ear?
  • Have you been experiencing dizziness?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Have someone look in your ear with a flashlight. What is seen?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Share your story
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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