Ear discharge is drainage of blood, ear wax, pus, or fluid from the ear.
Drainage from the ear; Otorrhea; Ear bleeding; Bleeding from ear
Most of the time, any fluid leaking out of an ear is ear wax.
However, discharge may also be caused by a minor irritation or infection. 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.
Bleeding from the ear may also be due to:
- Trauma to the ear canal
- Foreign object in the ear canal
- Eczema and other skin irritations in the ear canal
- Inflammation or infection:
- Injury from a blow to the head, foreign object, very loud noises, or sudden pressure changes (such as in airplanes), resulting in a ruptured or perforated eardrum
- Swimmer's ear -- usually accompanied by itching, scaling, a red or moist ear canal and pain that increases when you move the earlobe
To be safe, never put anything in the ear that is smaller than the tip of your little finger.
Treat inflammation or infection as your health care provider recommends. Your doctor may suggest ear drops.
Use a gentle, warm water flush with a syringe (available at the drug store) to remove packed-down ear wax. Do not attempt to remove impacted ear wax in very young children. If you can easily see and retrieve ear wax in older children, do so carefully. NEVER use sharp objects to attempt to remove wax.
Seek medical help for:
- Head injury
- Injury from a foreign object
- Noises or pressure changes
- Suspected clotting or bleeding problem
Don't get alarmed over a ruptured eardrum. Antibiotics can help prevent further infection during the healing process. Eardrum ruptures in children will usually heal completely within a few weeks.
For swimmer's ear (unless the eardrum is perforated):
- Tilt the head sideways, with the water-filled ear up.
- Pull the ear upward and backward.
- Carefully squeeze a medicine-dropper full of rubbing alcohol or a mixture of half rubbing alcohol and half white vinegar into the ear. This mixture will dry out the ear and kill any bacteria or fungi.
- Wiggle the ear to move the solution all the way down.
- Tilt the head again so that the affected ear is now down, and let the fluids drain out.
Putting a little mineral oil or baby oil in each ear before swimming may help prevent the problem.
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 health care provider's office
The health care provider will perform a physical examination 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 doctor may take a sample of the ear drainage and send it to a lab for examination.
The doctor 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.
Bauer Ca, Jenkins HA. Otologic symptoms and syndromes. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2010:chap 156.
Guss J, ruckenstein MJ. Infections of the external ear. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2010:chap 137.
House JC, Lee DJ. Topical therapies of external ear disorders. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2010:chap 138.
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Seth Schwartz, MD, MPH, Otolaryngologist, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.