Read below about ear discharge, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your ear discharge from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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

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Ear Discharge Symptoms

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.

Ear Discharge Causes Overview

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 Potential Ear Discharge Causes

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.

  1. 1.Inner Ear Infection (Labyrinthitis)

    Labyrinthitis is an infection of the inner ear.

    If there is no neurological issues (from a stroke or meningitis), the prognosis is good. However, symptoms of Labyrinthitis tend to linger for an extended period of time.

    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, headache, diarrhea, vomiting, fever
    Symptoms that always occur with inner ear infection (labyrinthitis):
    vertigo or imbalance
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.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.

    Problem resolves after object is removed.

    Top Symptoms:
    ear fullness/pressure, ear discharge, pain in one ear canal, bleeding from the ear, pus leaking from the ear
    Primary care doctor
  3. 3.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.

    Cured by removal

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

    Ear Discharge Checker

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having ear discharge.

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  4. 4.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.

    Chronic, but curable

    Top Symptoms:
    ear fullness/pressure, ringing in the ears, pain in one ear canal, vertigo (extreme dizziness), hearing loss in one ear
    Primary care doctor
  5. 5.Branchial Cleft Anomaly

    A branchial cleft anomaly (abnormality) is a mass of unusual tissues within the neck. These tissues may form fluid-filled pockets called cysts, or they may form passages (called fistulas) that drain to an opening in the skin.

    Good prognosis if surgically corrected, with no issues later in life.

    Top Symptoms:
    shortness of breath, neck bump, painful neck lump, trouble swallowing, swollen neck
    Symptoms that never occur with branchial cleft anomaly:
    bleeding from the ear
    Primary care doctor
  6. 6.Non - Urgent Tinnitus Needing Hearing Tests

    Tinnitus is the experience of having "ear noises" that is often described as as a whistling sound. It's very common, especially as you get older. Depending on the severity and type of tinnitus, you need different types of investigation.

    Tinnitus can come and go but is also permanent in some individuals

    Top Symptoms:
    ringing in the ears, ear pain
    Symptoms that always occur with non-urgent tinnitus needing hearing tests:
    ringing in the ears
    Symptoms that never occur with non-urgent tinnitus needing hearing tests:
    heartbeat sound in the ear, ear discharge, vertigo (extreme dizziness), face weakness, ear pain
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Non - Specific Ear Pain

    Ear pain not caused by infection or injury that is a variation of normal.

    1-2 days

    Top Symptoms:
    ear canal pain
    Symptoms that always occur with non-specific ear pain:
    ear canal pain
    Symptoms that never occur with non-specific ear pain:
    severe ear canal pain, swollen ear, ear discharge, ear pain that gets worse when moving

Ear Discharge Treatments and Relief

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 Swimmer’s 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

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.How would you describe what is leaking from your ear?
  • Q.Have you been experiencing dizziness?
  • Q.Do you use cotton-tipped swabs (q-tips) to clean your ears?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our ear discharge symptom checker to find out more.

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Ear Discharge Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced ear discharge have also experienced:

    • 12% Ear Canal Pain
    • 9% Pain in One Ear Canal
    • 7% Ear Fullness / Pressure
  • People who have experienced ear discharge had symptoms persist for:

    • 36% Less Than a Day
    • 28% Less Than a Week
    • 19% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced ear discharge were most often matched with:

    • 47% Foreign Body in External Ear
    • 5% Ear Plug Made of Skin Cells
    • 2% Inner Ear Infection (Labyrinthitis)
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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