What Causes Ear Discharge? Your Symptoms Explained
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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.
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.
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 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 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Rochel specializes in writing for health, dental and orthodontist industry. She has written several eBooks that have ranked number one in their category. Rochel received her BA from College of Lake County.