What is ear discharge?
Ear discharge (otorrhea) is drainage from the ear. The drainage may be watery, bloody, or thick and whitish, like pus (purulent). There are several types of ear discharge, including:
- Pus or cloudy fluid. This is the most common type of ear discharge. The main cause is an ear infection. The drainage is from a torn eardrum. The eardrum ruptures in about 10% of bacterial ear infections.
- Ear tube fluid release. Children with frequent ear infections may get ventilation tubes put in. These help the middle ear drain its fluids and become dry. Sometimes, the ear tube gets plugged up. Normal fluids build up in the middle ear until the ear tube opens up again. This can cause some clear fluid drainage from the ear canal for a day.
- Earwax. Earwax is light brown, dark brown, or orange brown in color. If it gets wet, it can look like a discharge.
- Blood. This follows an injury to the ear. Usually, it’s just a minor scratch of the lining of the ear canal.
- Water. Bath water or tears can get in the ear canal. Seeing a clear “discharge” that happens once is likely this.
- Ear drops. The person who sees the discharge may not know someone else put in drops.
- Swimmer’s ear discharge. Early symptoms are an itchy ear canal. Later symptoms include a whitish, watery discharge. Mainly occurs in swimmers and in the summer time.
- Ear canal foreign body (object). Young children may put small objects in their ear canal. It can cause a low grade infection and pus colored discharge. If the object was sharp, the discharge may have streaks of blood.
How common is ear discharge?
Ear discharge is extremely common. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
Which signs and symptoms can ear discharge usually be associated with?
Related signs and symptoms include:
- Ear pain
- Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
- Hearing loss.
What causes ear discharge?
Causes of ear discharge can include:
- Middle ear infection. Middle ear infection (otitis media) is a common cause of discharge from the ear. Otitis media occurs when bacteria or viruses make their way into the middle ear. The middle ear is behind the eardrum. It contains three bones called ossicles. These are vital to hearing.Ear infections in the middle ear can cause fluid to build up behind the eardrum. If there is too much fluid, there is a risk of perforation of the eardrum, which can lead to ear discharge.
- Trauma. Trauma to the ear canal can also cause discharge. Such trauma can occur while cleaning your ear with a cotton swab if you push it in too deep.An increase in pressure, such as when you’re flying in an airplane or scuba diving, can also result in trauma to your ear. These situations may also cause your eardrum to rupture or tear. Acoustic trauma is damage to the ear due to extremely loud noises. Acoustic trauma can cause your eardrum to rupture as well. However, these cases aren’t as common as the others described.
- Swimmer’s ear. Otitis externa, commonly known as swimmer’s ear, occurs when bacteria or fungus infects your ear canal. It usually occurs when you spend long periods of time in water.Too much moisture inside your ear can break down the skin on the walls of your ear canal. This allows bacteria or fungus to enter and cause an infection. However, swimmer’s ear isn’t exclusive to swimmers. It can result whenever there’s a break in the skin of the ear canal. This might occur if you have irritated skin as a result of eczema. It can also occur if you insert a foreign object into the ear. Any damage to your ear canal makes it more susceptible to infection.
- Less common causes. A less common cause for ear discharge ismalignant otitis externa, a complication of swimmer’s ear that causes damage to the cartilage and bones in the base of the skull.Other rare causes include a skull fracture, which is a break in any of the bones in the skull, or mastoiditis, which is an infection of the mastoid bone behind your ear.
The conditions mentioned above are some common causes of ear discharge. Consult with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
What increases my risk for ear discharge?
You are more likely to experience ear discharge if you have any of the conditions mentioned above.
Please consult with your doctor for further information.
When to see your doctor
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you or your loved one has any of the following:
- Ear discharge that is white, yellow, or bloody
- Ear discharge that persists for more than five days.
- Severe pain
- Swelling and/or redness
- Hearing loss
- Injury to the ear
- Facial weakness or asymmetry
On noticing one of these symptoms or having any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor to get the best solutions for your situation.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage ear discharge?
Caring for ear discharge at home depends on the cause. There are certain things you can do to prevent ear discharge:
- To avoid ear infections, try to stay away from people who are sick.
- Breastfeeding may provide infants with protection from ear infections, since they receive their mother’s antibodies in their milk. If you bottle-feed your baby, you should try holding your infant in an upright position rather than letting them drink lying down.
- Keep foreign objects out of your ears to avoid rupturing your eardrum.
- If you know you’ll be in an area with excessive noise, bring ear plugs or muffs to protect your eardrums.
- You can prevent swimmer’s ear by making sure to dry your ears after being in the water. Also, try to drain any water by turning your head to one side and then the other. You can also use over-the-counter medicated ear drops after you swim to control and alleviate swimmer’s ear.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor for the best solutions.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
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Ear - Discharge. https://www.seattlechildrens.org/conditions/a-z/ear-discharge/. Accessed February 22, 2019.
Ear discharge. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003042.htm. Accessed February 22, 2019.
Ear Discharge. https://www.msdmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/symptoms-of-ear-disorders/ear-discharge. Accessed February 22, 2019.
Review Date: February 22, 2019 | Last Modified: February 22, 2019