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Ear discharge

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

Common 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.

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

The health care 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: 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.

O'Handley JG, Tobin EJ, Shah AR. Otorhinolaryngology. In: Rakel RE, ed. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 19.

Updated: 8/30/2012

Linda J. Vorvick, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, 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. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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