Ear pain and infections are common and can cause serious discomfort. While pain is sometimes the only symptom, an ear infection or a more serious condition may be accompanied by pus or other drainage.

Pus is usually associated with bacterial buildup. If you notice pus or other drainage coming from your ears, consult your doctor to prevent the symptoms from getting worse.

Ear drainage shouldn’t be ignored. If you notice fluid, blood, or pus accumulating in your ear or drainage from your ear, this may be an indication of a serious condition. Following are some of the potential causes of drainage or pus from your ear.

Ear infection

Middle ear infections — also known as acute otitis media — are common, particularly in children. They’re often caused by a bacterial or viral infection affecting the middle portion of the ear. Common symptoms of an ear infection include:

If too much pressure builds up from an infection in the middle ear, the ear drum can tear open, causing bleeding and drainage to occur.

Minor ear infections can clear up on their own, but more severe cases require antibiotics and pain medication. If the condition becomes recurrent, your doctor may recommend tympanostomy tubes (ear tubes).

This requires a surgical procedure that drains the fluid from the middle ear and inserts tiny tubes into the ear drum. These help prevent the buildup of fluid and bacteria in the middle ear.

Swimmer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear is a type of infection that affects the outer ear canal (otitis externa). It can happen when water becomes trapped in your ear, after swimming, for example, allowing bacteria or fungus to grow.

You can also develop outer ear infections if you damage the lining of your ear canal by using cotton swabs or other materials to clean your ear. Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, can make you more prone to these infections.

Symptoms are typically mild but can become severe if the infection goes untreated. If you have swimmer’s ear or another type of outer ear infection, you may experience symptoms including:

Treating a swimmer’s ear infection and other outer ear infections requires medicated ear drops. Antibiotics or antifungal medication may also be needed depending on the cause of your infection.

Your doctor may also recommend pain medication for temporary relief. While treating this infection, it’s recommended that you do not soak your ear, swim, or use ear plugs or earbud headphones.

Skin cyst

A cholesteatoma is an abnormal, noncancerous growth that can develop in the middle portion of your ear behind your eardrum. They often develop as cysts that may increase in size over time.

If a cholesteatoma increases in size, it can destroy bones in your middle ear and result in hearing loss, facial muscle paralysis, and dizziness. Other symptoms you may experience with this abnormal skin growth include:

Cholesteatomas don’t heal or go away on their own. Surgery is needed to remove them, and antibiotics are required to treat the infection and reduce inflammation.

Foreign object

Anything foreign to the body that can get stuck in your ear can cause pain, drainage, and damage. This is particularly a problem for younger children. Common objects that can get trapped in the ear canal include:

  • small toy pieces
  • beads
  • food
  • insects
  • buttons
  • cotton swabs

In some cases, these objects can be removed at home once they’re noticed — but only if they’re easily seen near the outer opening of the ear.

If they’re trapped further along in the ear canal, seek immediate medical attention.

Trying to pry these foreign objects out on your own may cause more damage.

Ruptured eardrum

A ruptured eardrum can be the result of pressure caused by fluid buildup in the middle ear, often from an infection. It can also result from ear injury or trauma from a foreign body. As a result, you may notice fluid or pus draining from the ear.

Other common symptoms associated with this condition include:

  • sharp, sudden ear pain
  • ear ache
  • bleeding
  • ear buzzing
  • dizziness
  • hearing changes
  • eye or sinus infections

A ruptured eardrum usually heals without medical treatment. However, your doctor may recommend surgery to repair the rupture if it doesn’t heal on its own.

Your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics to treat an ear infection along with medication for pain relief.

Ear drainage or discharge shouldn’t be ignored. The appearance of pus may be a sign of an ear infection or an underlying condition that should be discussed with your doctor.

If this symptom is paired with intense pain, a head injury, or hearing loss, seek immediate medical attention.

Minor infections may clear on their own, but treatment by your doctor is often necessary to prevent or manage recurring conditions.