Earwax (also called cerumen) is a naturally occurring substance in your ear.

While it’s possible to experience excess amounts or a blockage from time to time, having earwax helps lubricate your ear canals as well as prevent dirt and bacteria from traveling past your middle ear and eardrum.

“Normal” earwax is typically a yellowish color. Sometimes, accumulated earwax can look tan, brown, or black. Red earwax, however, can be a sign that blood has mixed in with cerumen.

Many causes of bloody earwax are minor and may not necessarily require a doctor’s visit.

But some instances need immediate medical attention, especially if you have sustained a significant ear injury or are experiencing severe pain and discomfort.

Learn more about the possible causes of bloody earwax and all the next steps you need to take to help treat it.

Earwax may turn red or bloody as a result of damage to part of your ear. Below are some possible causes.

Ear canal injury

One of the most common causes of bloody earwax is unintentional damage to the ear canal.

This can happen when you try to clean your ears with your finger or a cotton swab and your ear gets scratched. Injuries may also occur when young children stick toys, crayons, sticks, or other items in their ears.

While many ear canal injuries are minor, you should be on the lookout for possible signs of infection, including:

Most cases of bleeding resolve on their own. But you should see your doctor if your ear continues to bleed.

Severe ear infection

Ear infections (otitis media) develop in the middle part of your ear (behind the eardrum).

They can cause inflamed and red eardrums, as well as discharge and pain. When an infection gets worse, it may cause fluid buildup behind your eardrum, causing it to rupture and bleed.

If you notice bloody wax or discharge from your ear, you may have developed a severe infection. See your doctor right away in these cases.

Ruptured eardrum

A ruptured eardrum is a more serious type of injury. This occurs as a result of tearing of the fragile membrane that makes up the eardrum.

Possible causes of rupturing include:

Trauma

Trauma to the eardrum is just one cause of bleeding in your ears.

Car accidents, falls, and blows to the head in contact sports can also cause ear trauma. In most cases, ear trauma is a medical emergency.

Cholesteatoma

Cholesteatoma is a cluster of benign (noncancerous) cells that accumulates in the middle part of your ear. It often only affects one ear, causing watery discharge and hearing loss.

This condition is sometimes mistaken for an ear infection. But untreated cholesteatoma can also become infected. Surgical removal is required.

Ear cancer

Ear cancer is a rare, but serious, cause of bloody earwax. Cancers of the ear are typically caused by various types of skin cancer that can effect the outer ear and ear canal.

This occurs when cancerous (malignant) cells accumulate on the outside of your ear and then spread into the ear canal and middle ear.

Aside from bleeding sores and other lesions caused by skin cancer on or in the ears, people with ear cancer may also experience hearing loss and numbness.

Lifestyle

Certain lifestyle habits, such as swimming, playing sports, and excessively cleaning your ears, may all contribute to an increased risk of infections and injuries. These may cause bloody earwax from time to time.

It’s also possible to rupture your eardrums from sudden pressure changes (barotrauma). Activities that may cause this include:

  • hiking
  • scuba diving
  • flying on an airplane

You may also experience ear bleeding as a result.

To diagnose the cause of bleeding in your ears, your doctor will need to examine both of your ears. They will take a close look at your eardrum to rule out infections and punctures.

If abnormal growths are suspected, they may take a tissue sample (biopsy) and send it to a lab for further testing. Imaging tests, such as CT scans, may also be ordered.

If you’ve experienced hearing loss, your doctor may also order an audiology test. This helps to evaluate the severity of your hearing loss, as well as to identify if it’s occurring in one or both ears.

In the case of a medical emergency, you’ll need to seek care right away. Trauma and serious injuries may result in bleeding in the ears along with other signs of an emergency, including:

The exact treatment for blood earwax depends on the underlying cause. Your doctor may recommend:

  • A “wait and see” approach. This may be recommended for minor injuries or scratches to the ear canal, as well as minor middle ear infections. Ruptured eardrums may also heal on their own within a couple of months.
  • Antibiotics. If a minor infection doesn’t improve after a couple of days, your doctor may recommend antibiotics in oral or eardrop form.
  • Ear tubes. These may be recommended for chronic (recurring) ear infections to help keep fluid out of the ears.
  • Object removal. If an object injures the ear and becomes stuck, you’ll need to see a doctor to help remove it. A medical provider can remove it safely without causing further injury.
  • Surgical removal of abnormal growths. This procedure applies to cholesteatoma removal, as well as removal of cancerous growths from the ear.
  • Tympanoplasty. This is another type of surgery that’s recommended to help repair eardrums that don’t heal on their own after an injury.

Pain and discomfort associated with minor injuries and infections may be treated at home with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).

You may also ask your doctor about homeopathic eardrops to help alleviate pain.

For bleeding that’s occurring alongside earwax buildup, you may consider softening the wax by applying warm olive oil to the ear canal.

Caution

Ear candles are not recommended. Avoid sticking swabs and other objects into your ear in an attempt to remove bloody wax.

Healthline

Minor conditions that cause bloody earwax may also cause temporary symptoms like discharge, pain, swelling, and fever. Wax that gets pushed back into your ear (impaction) may also lead to an infection.

Some causes of bloody earwax are related to more serious underlying causes. Left untreated, the following long-term complications can occur:

Bloody earwax is most commonly caused by minor injuries that create a few drops of blood that mix in with your normal earwax.

Such cases may resolve on their own. But you may consider calling your doctor if you’re experiencing signs of an infection, such as pain, fever, and drainage.

Call your doctor right away if you experience more significant bleeding from your ears that won’t stop. Seek emergency medical care if your bloody ears are related to accidents or trauma.