What Causes Clear, Odorless Ear Discharge & Why Your Ear is Leaking Fluid
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While some ear discharge is normal for a healthy, functioning ear, an abundance of clear fluid leaking from the ear can be caused from thin cerumen, a ruptured eardrum, a signal of an underlying ear infection, or a skin condition within the ear canal. The most common cause of watery discharge from the ear is Swimmer's ear. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options.
Watery discharge from the ear symptoms explained
Some discharge from your ear is normal, such as earwax (cerumen), that protects the skin of your ear canal by keeping it clean and lubricated. Cerumen already provides a barrier against infection-causing bacteria, viruses, fungi, and potential damage caused by foreign objects. Sometimes, however, the amount of cerumen is excessive. Cerumen can become impacted, causing discomfort in your ear. Cerumen impaction can even cause problems with your hearing. Cerumen and other discharge from your ear can present in different colors and maybe reddish, dark brown, black, yellowish, off-white, or clear. Clear, odorless ear discharge may be due to recurrent childhood ear infections, injury to your ear canal, a foreign body, or even an upper respiratory infection like a cold.
Common accompanying symptoms
If you're experiencing clear, odorless ear discharge, you may also experience:
Why is your ear leaking clear fluid?
The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.
More common causes
The following are the most common causes of clear, odorless ear discharge.
- Thin cerumen: Some people make earwax that is more liquid than solid. Thin cerumen is normal and can be clear to yellowish in color.
- Eczematoid dermatitis: This is a skin condition that can occur in the ear canal, causing irritation, itching, flaking skin, and clear discharge.
- A ruptured eardrum This condition can be due to a middle ear infection (otitis media) and cause clear discharge.
- Cerebral spinal fluid leak: Clear cerebral spinal fluid may leak from the ears after a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
- Ear infection: Clear discharge from tympanostomy tube drainage may be an early sign of ear infection.
Less common causes
Less commonly, clear, odorless ear discharge might be due to a variety of skin conditions, middle ear diseases, tumors (benign or cancerous), herpes, radiation, or chemotherapy treatment.
Clear, odorless ear discharge conditions
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.
Top Symptoms: fever, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, jaw pain, ear pain that gets worse when moving
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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.
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
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.
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
Burst ear drum
The ear drum is a thin membrane that vibrates as sound hits it, transmitting that vibration into signals that the brain understands! When it bursts, your hearing is affected. It typically happens after some force to the ear drum, such as a blow to the ear, an exploding firecracker, a fall onto water, or even a sharp object in the ear.
Top Symptoms: ear canal pain, constant ear pain, ringing in the ears, vertigo (extreme dizziness), hearing loss
Symptoms that always occur with burst ear drum: ear canal pain, recent ear injury, constant ear pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Cholesteatoma (a non-cancerous growth in the ear)
Cholesteatoma is a type of skin cyst that is located in the middle ear and mastoid bone in the skull. It can be a birth defect though more commonly occurs as a complication of chronic ear infection.
Top Symptoms: ear fullness/pressure, ringing in the ears, pain in one ear canal, vertigo (extreme dizziness), hearing loss in one ear
Urgency: Primary care doctor
When and how to treat clear, odorless ear drainage
When to see a doctor
Depending on the cause of your clear, odorless ear discharge, your physician may recommend professional disimpaction of cerumen, antibiotics, or steroid medications.
Good ear hygiene is key to preventing infection or other ailments. Try to adhere to the following.
- Leave the ears alone: Unless there is a buildup of excess earwax, trust your ears to clean themselves.
- Use irrigation: If you must clean your ears, irrigation is the safest and most effective method. Use hydrogen peroxide or mineral oil. Do not irrigate your ears if you have ear pain, if you think you have damage to your eardrum (tympanic membrane), or if you've had a lot of earaches in your life.
- Avoid swabbing: Swabbing your ears is potentially dangerous. Swabbing may remove some wax but can push wax deeper into the ear, or even puncture your eardrum.
- Avoid ear candling: Ear candling has not been found effective and is potentially dangerous as it may cause facial burns.
- Avoid wax remover kits: These kits which may contain sharp instruments.
When it is an emergency
Seek immediate medical care if you have clear, odorless ear discharge and the following symptoms.
- A recent head injury
- Ear fullness or pain
- A rash or itching in or around your ear
- The discharge starts to smell foul or becomes pus-like
- Any loss of hearing
- Numbness, weakness, or paralysis on one side of your face
- Nausea and vomiting
- You know there is something in your ear that should not be there
- Jaw pain
Questions your doctor may ask about clear, odorless ear discharge
- Have you been experiencing dizziness?
- Have you noticed a change in your hearing?
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Do you hear a ringing or whistling sound no one else hears?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Clear, odorless ear discharge statistics
People who have experienced clear, odorless ear discharge have also experienced:
- 12% Ear Canal Pain
- 11% Pain In One Ear Canal
- 9% Ear Fullness/Pressure
People who have experienced clear, odorless ear discharge were most often matched with:
- 40% Swimmer'S Ear (Otitis Externa)
- 40% Foreign Body In External Ear
- 20% Earwax Blockage
People who have experienced clear, odorless ear discharge had symptoms persist for:
- 34% Less than a day
- 29% Less than a week
- 21% Over a month
Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).
Carina is a Nurse-Midwife with 20 years of clinical experience in both high- and low-risk obstetrical settings. She received her MS and BSN from Columbia University of Nursing. Most recently she has extended her scope of practice to include care for the peri/menopausal woman, and has NCMP (North American Menopause Society Certified Menopause Provider) certification in this area. Carina also has expertise in women's sexual health, sexual assault forensics and cervical cancer screening, management of abnormal pap smears and colposcopy, and the management and care coordination of higher risk obstetrical patients.
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- Ear Discharge. Health Navigator. Updated June 24, 2018. Health Navigator Link
- Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection) in Adults. Columbia University: Department of Otolaryngology. ENT Columbia Link
- Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link
- Hearing Problems After Treatment. The Children's Oncology Group. The Children's Oncology Group Link