Symptoms A-Z

What Causes Ear Discharge? Your Symptoms Explained

Ear discharge is fluid located in the ear that can have many different characteristics. While earwax is an expected and healthy ear discharge, abnormal fluid in the ear can be caused by an ear infection affecting either the inner or middle ear, or trauma from a foreign body within the ear. Read below for more information on ear discharge and how to get fluid out of the ear.

This symptom can also be referred to as: fluid leaking from ear

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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

What Causes Fluid or Drainage in the Ears

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.

7 Possible Ear Discharge Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced 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

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

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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

Inner ear infection (labyrinthitis)

An inner ear infection, also called labyrinthitis, affects the delicate bony structures deep within the ear.

Labyrinthitis usually follows a viral infection such as the common cold, influenza, mumps, or the measles. In rare cases, usually in young children, it can be caused by bacteria.

Risk factors include a middle ear infection; meningitis; or any autoimmune disorder.

Symptoms include vertigo, where the person feels that the world is spinning around them; nausea and vomiting; some loss of hearing; ear pain, sometimes with drainage from the ear canal; and ringing in the ears (tinnitus.)

Viral symptoms may at least partially resolve on their own, but treatment can rule out a more serious condition as well as address the pain and discomfort. Bacterial labyrinthitis is often more serious and can cause permanent hearing loss.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and sometimes a hearing test.

Treatment for viral labyrinthitis includes rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers. Antibiotics will be prescribed for bacterial labyrinthitis.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: nausea, headache, diarrhea, vomiting, fever

Symptoms that always occur with inner ear infection (labyrinthitis): vertigo or imbalance

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Chronic ear infection (suppurative otitis media)

Chronic Suppurative Otitis Media is persistent drainage from the middle ear due to a damaged membrane. It is considered chronic when it lasts for more than 6 weeks.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: ear canal pain, pus leaking from the ear, hearing loss in one ear

Symptoms that always occur with chronic ear infection (suppurative otitis media): pus leaking from the ear

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Ear plug made of skin cells

Keratosis Obturans is a rare disease where materials that make up the skin create a plug in the ear, causing pain, discharge, and hearing changes.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: hearing loss, pain in one ear canal, ear discharge, hearing loss in both ears, severe ear canal pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

How to Remove Fluid or Discharge From Your Ear

When it is an emergency

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

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

FAQs About Ear Discharge

Here are some frequently asked questions 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

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

  • 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?

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 ear discharge

Ear Discharge Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced ear discharge have also experienced:

  • 13% Ear Canal Pain
  • 9% Pain In One Ear Canal
  • 8% Ear Fullness/Pressure

People who have experienced 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 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”).

Ear Discharge Symptom Checker

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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.