Ear discharge is any fluid that comes from the ear. It is also called otorrhea.
However, other conditions—such as a ruptured eardrum—can cause blood or other fluids to drain from your ear. This is a sign that your ear has been injured or infected and requires medical attention.
In most cases, discharge from your ear is simply ear wax making its way out of your body. This is natural. Other conditions that can cause discharge include infection or injury.
Ear infections are one of the most common causes of discharge from the ear. An ear infection occurs when bacteria or viruses makes their way into the middle ear. The middle ear is located behind the eardrum. It contains three bones—called ossicles—that are vital to hearing. Ear infections cause fluid to build up in the ear, which can lead to ear discharge.
Trauma to the ear canal can also cause discharge. Such trauma can occur while cleaning your ear with a Q-tip if you push it in too deep.
An increase in pressure, such as when you are flying in an airplane or scuba diving, can result in trauma to your ear. These situations may cause your eardrum to rupture or tear.
Acoustic trauma—or damage to the ear due to extremely loud noises—can also cause your eardrum to rupture. However, these cases are not as common (NIH).
Otitis externa—commonly known as swimmer’s ear—occurs when your ear canal becomes infected with bacteria or fungus. It usually occurs when you spend long periods of time in water, since having too much moisture inside your ear can break down the walls of your ear canal. This allows bacteria or fungi to enter and cause an infection.
However, swimmer’s ear is not exclusive to swimmers. It can result whenever there is a break in the ear canal’s skin. This might occur if the skin is irritated as a result of eczema or if foreign objects are inserted into the ear. Any damage to your ear canal makes it more susceptible to infection.
Other less common causes for ear discharge include:
- malignant otitis externa: a complication of swimmer’s ear that causes damage to the cartilage and bones in the base of the skull
- mastoiditis: an infection of the bone behind your ear, called the mastoid bone
- skull fracture: a break in any of the bones in the skull
Treatment of your ear discharge will depend on its cause. In some cases, your condition will not need medical treatment. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends a “wait and see” approach when it comes to treating ear infections (Mayo Clinic).
Signs of an ear infection usually start to clear up within the first week or two. Pain medications and eardrops might be prescribed to deal with any pain or discomfort. If your child is under 6 months old or if you have a fever over 102 degrees F, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics.
Most cases of ear trauma also heal without treatment. If you have a tear in your eardrum that does not heal naturally, a paper patch might be applied to the tear. This patch is designed to keep the hole closed while your eardrum heals. If a patch does not work, your doctor might surgically repair your ear using a patch of your own skin.
Swimmer’s ear should be treated by a doctor to prevent the infection from spreading. Typically, your doctor will give you antibiotics in the form of eardrops to use for about a week. In severe cases, oral antibiotics will also be needed.
You should call your doctor if:
- the discharge from your ear is white, yellow, or bloody
- you have had discharge for more than five days
- you are experiencing severe pain
- you have a loss of hearing
- if the discharge from your ear is accompanied by other symptoms, like a fever
- your ear is also swollen or red
- you received an injury to the ear that caused the discharge
To avoid ear infections, try to stay away from people who are sick. Breastfeeding provides infants with protection from ear infections, since they receive their mother’s antibodies in the milk. If you bottle-feed your baby, try to hold the infant in an upright position to prevent ear infections (Mayo Clinic).
Keep foreign objects out of your ears to avoid rupturing your eardrum. If you know you will be in an area with excessive noise, bring ear plugs or muffs to protect your eardrums.
You can prevent swimmer’s ear by making sure to dry your ears after being in the water. Also, try to drain out any water by turning your head to the side. Over the counter medicated eardrops may be used after swimming to control and alleviate swimmer’s ear.