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.
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
Caring for ear discharge at home depends on the cause.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
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 Office Visit
The health care provider will perform a physical exam 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.
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: Elsevier Mosby; 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: Elsevier Mosby; 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: Elsevier Mosby; 2010:chap 138.
O'Handley JG, Tobin EJ, Shah AR. Otorhinolaryngology. In: Rakel RE, ed. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 19.
Ashutosh Kacker, MD, BS, Professor of Clinical Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Attending Otolaryngologist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.