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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.
  • Facial weakness or asymmetry

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.

The provider may remove wax or infectious material from the ear canal using a small vacuum suction.

References

Hathorn I. The ear, nose and throat. In: Innes JA, Dover AR, Fairhurst K, eds. Macleod's Clinical Examination. 14th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 9.

Kerschner JE, Preciado D. Otitis media. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 658.

Pelton SI. Otitis externa, otitis media, and mastoiditis. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 61.

Wareing MJ. Ear, nose and throat. In: Glynn M, Drake WM, eds. Hutchison's Clinical Methods. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 21.


Review Date: 4/13/2020
Reviewed By: Josef Shargorodsky, MD, MPH, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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