Symptoms A-Z

Ear Discharge Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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

It's a normal afternoon. You're catching up on some work when suddenly, your ear begins to feel strange. You ignore it at first, but the sensation just won't go away. You put your hand to the side of your head and that's when you feel it. There's something wet seeping out of your ear.

You head to the bathroom to get a closer look and that's when you realize that your day has taken a strange turn. You have ear discharge! It's not a good look on you, so you head home and try to determine how to eliminate the unpleasant visitor.

The good news is that ear discharge, no matter how unpleasant, is a common occurrence.

Ear discharge symptoms may include:

  • White, yellowish, or grey discharge
  • Foul-smelling discharge
  • Painful at times
  • Fever if due to infection
  • Numbness or tingling sensation

Ear discharge is defined as any fluid coming from the ear. It's also called otorrhea. Earwax is a normal discharge made from an oil naturally produced in the ear. It serves as an important function in that it ensures that dust and bacteria don't enter the ear canal.

But sometimes, blood or other fluids can enter the ear, such as through a ruptured eardrum. This is why ear discharge symptoms should never be ignored. They could be a sign of a treatable infection or a symptom of a more serious trauma.

What Causes Fluid or Drainage in the Ears

There can be several causes as to why you have ear discharge. Here are a few common reasons for the unpleasant experience.

Infectious ear discharge causes:

  • Swimmer's ear: Bacteria colonizing in the ear due to contaminated water can cause inflammation and a buildup of fluids in the ear. 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 via the nasal passage or throat.

Trauma ear discharge causes:

  • Presence of foreign body: Trauma can occur when you push a swab or foreign object too hard into your ears. This may cause a discharge.
  • Change in pressure: A sudden increase in pressure, like when you ride an airplane or when you quickly reach a high altitude, may cause your eardrum to rupture and produce a discharge.

Medical ear discharge causes:

  • Mastoiditis: This condition refers to the inflammation of the jaw, which is near the ear. Excessive fluids may result and discharge.
  • Inflamed Adenoids: Adenoids can get inflamed if there is fluid coming from the Eustachian tubes, causing infection and discharge.

Other ear discharge causes:

  • Loud noises: Loud sounds can damage the eardrum and cause a 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

If your ear discharge is mild, it's acceptable to wait 24 hours and then evaluate the situation again before heading to the doctor.

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

Luckily, there are several ways to treat ear discharge symptoms. Treatment can last for a few days or even longer than a week depending on the severity of the cause.

  • Ear drops: Commonly prescribed to reduce inflammation and swelling seen in cases of trauma and infections.
  • Paper patch: Used to restore normal hearing in cases of excessive discharges due to a perforated eardrum. This keeps the eardrum closed while healing.
  • Antibiotics: Prescribed to prevent widespread infections. Commonly given to patients with swimmer's ear.
  • Surgery: Treatment option for patients with a damaged eardrum due to trauma.

There are also preventative measures you can take if you experience ear discharge symptoms on a regular basis.

  • 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.

Ear discharge is a common life annoyance. But there are times when the situation is serious. Closely monitor any changes in the condition of your ears to prevent permanent damage.

FAQs About Ear Discharge

Here are some frequently asked questions about ear discharge.

What causes ear drainage?

Most of the time the fluid leaking out of an ear is ear wax. But sometimes ear drainage can be caused by a ruptured eardrum (caused by trauma, foreign objects, or middle ear infection). In this case, one would often see a white, slightly bloody, or yellow discharge from the ear. Another common cause is infection/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 caused by infections, which is often called Swimmers ear (otitis externa). Fluid in the middle ear can be caused by acute middle ear infection (acute otitis media) and may persist for weeks to months after the acute symptoms have resolved (otitis media with effusion). But sometimes, ear infection persists, giving rise to chronic fluid buildup in the middle ear (chronic otitis media with effusion).

Does a ruptured eardrum cause discharge?

Yes. An eardrum can often become perforated when there is a substantial amount of fluid accumulating 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 ear wax. 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 result from cerebrospinal fluid leakage via fracture of the skull or, less worrisome, water from recent swimming/bathing. Bloody discharge can be caused by trauma to the external ear canal, eardrum, or skull fracture. Purulent discharge can be a sign of acute/chronic infection of the middle ear (otitis media), external ear canal (otitis externa), or 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.