Symptoms A-Z

Clear, Odorless Ear Discharge Symptom, Causes & Questions

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.

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Watery Discharge from the Ear Symptoms Explained

It is normal to have some discharge from your ear. Ear wax (cerumen) protects the skin of your ear canal by keeping it clean and lubricated. Proper ear hygiene does not involve cotton swabs, ear candles or ear wax removal kits. 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 hearing. Cerumen and other discharge from your ear can present in different colors. Discharge may be reddish, dark brown, black, yellowish, off-white or clear. Clear, odorless ear discharge might be related to recurrent childhood ear infections, injury to your ear canal, foreign body, or even an upper respiratory infection like a cold [1,2].

Characteristics

Symptoms associated with clear, odorless ear discharge may include:

Why Is Your Ear Leaking Clear Fluid?

The following are the most common causes of clear, odorless ear discharge [3].

  • Thin cerumen: Some people make ear wax that is more liquid than solid. Thin cerumen is normal and may 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 can be due to a middle ear infection (otitis media), can cause clear discharge [4].
  • Cerebral spinal fluid leak: Clear cerebral spinal fluid may leak from the ears after a traumatic brain injury (TBI) [5].
  • Ear infection: Clear discharge from tympanostomy tube drainage may be an early sign of ear infection.

Less commonly, clear, odorless ear discharge might be caused by a variety of skin conditions, middle ear diseases and tumors (benign and cancerous), herpes, radiation, or chemotherapy treatment [6].

5 Possible Clear, Odorless Ear Discharge Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced clear, odorless ear discharge. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

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

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.

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

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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.

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

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.

Rarity: Rare

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.

Rarity: Rare

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

Depending on the cause of your clear, odorless ear discharge, your health care provider may recommend professional disimpaction of cerumen, antibiotic or steroid medications.

At-home treatments

Good ear hygiene is important. You should practice the following in order to limit or alleviate symptoms.

  • Leave the ears alone: Unless there is a build-up of excess ear wax, 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 or know 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 never been demonstrated to be effective and is potentially dangerous in that it may cause facial burns.
  • Avoid wax remover kits: These kits which may contain sharp instruments.

Seek immediate treatment or call 911 for the following

Seek immediate medical care if you have clear, odorless ear discharge and:

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Clear, Odorless Ear Discharge

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • 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?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your clear, odorless ear discharge

Clear, Odorless Ear Discharge Symptom Checker 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 visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Clear, Odorless Ear Discharge Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your clear, odorless ear discharge

References

  1. Ear - Discharge. Seattle Children's Hospital. Updated March 31, 2018. Seattle Children's Hospital Link
  2. Jothi S. Ear Discharge. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated May 25, 2016. MedlinePlus Link
  3. Ear Discharge. Health Navigator. Updated June 24, 2018. Health Navigator Link
  4. Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection) in Adults. Columbia University: Department of Otolaryngology. ENT Columbia Link
  5. Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link
  6. Hearing Problems After Treatment. The Children's Oncology Group. The Children's Oncology Group Link

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.