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Ear discharge

  • Definition
    • Ear discharge is drainage of blood, ear wax, pus, or fluid from the ear.

  • Alternative Names
    • Drainage from the ear; Otorrhea; Ear bleeding; Bleeding from ear

  • Causes
    • Most of the time, any fluid leaking out of an ear is ear wax.

      A ruptured eardrum can cause a white, slightly bloody, or yellow discharge from the ear. Dry crusted material on a child's pillow is often a sign of a ruptured eardrum. The eardrum may also bleed.

      Causes of a ruptured eardrum include:

      • Foreign object in the ear canal
      • Injury from a blow to the head, foreign object, very loud noises, or sudden pressure changes (such as in airplanes)
      • Inserting cotton-tipped swabs or other small objects into the ear
      • Middle ear infection

      Other causes of ear discharge include:

      • Eczema and other skin irritations in the ear canal
      • Swimmer's ear -- with symptoms such as itching, scaling, a red or moist ear canal, and pain that increases when you move the earlobe
  • Home Care
    • Caring for ear discharge at home depends on the cause.

  • When to Contact a Medical Professional
    • Call your health care provider if:

      • The discharge is white, yellow, clear, or bloody.
      • The discharge is the result of an injury.
      • The discharge has lasted more than 5 days.
      • There is severe pain.
      • The discharge is associated with other symptoms, such as fever or headache.
      • There is loss of hearing.
      • There is redness or swelling coming out of the ear canal.
  • What to Expect at Your Office Visit
    • The provider will perform a physical exam and look inside the ears. You may be asked questions, such as:

      • When did the ear drainage begin?
      • What does it look like?
      • How long has it lasted?
      • Does it drain all the time or off-and-on?
      • What other symptoms do you have (for example, fever, ear pain, headache)?

      The provider may take a sample of the ear drainage and send it to a lab for examination.

      The provider may recommend anti-inflammatory or antibiotic medicines, which are placed in the ear. Antibiotics may be given by mouth if a ruptured eardrum from an ear infection is causing the discharge.

  • References
    • Bauer CA, Jenkins HA. Otologic symptoms and syndromes. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 156.

      Brant JA, Ruckenstein MJ. Infections of the external ear. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 137.

      Lee DJ, Roberts D. Topical therapies for external ear disorders. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 138.

      O'Handley JG, Tobin EJ, Shah AR. Otorhinolaryngology. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 18.