Ear Discharge (Ear Drainage) – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
- Last Updated: Jan 3rd, 2019
- Posted by: admin
- Category: Health & Wellness
You may have experienced a wet leaky brown substance draining out of the ear.
Yes, that is an excess earwax which is cleaned by the ear and it is discharged. Well, it is natural. But if your ear starts draining water, blood, pus, colored fluid instead of earwax, then it a worrisome matter as it reflects that something is wrong with your ears. As draining of blood and fluids from any parts of your body can not be considered normal.
Thus ear discharge or ear drainage should be focussed carefully as ignorance of it may lead to other problems. Let’s begin with the definition of ear discharge (ear drainage).
What is ear discharge?
When there is a discharge of fluid, earwax, pus along with blood and water from the ear, it is called as ear discharge or ear drainage. Otorrhea is a scientific term for ear discharge or drainage. The drainage may be watery, bloody, or thick and whitish, like pus (purulent).
In most cases, there is a discharge of earwax from your ear. It is a natural process as earwax is a form of oil that our body produces. Earwax resists the entry of dust, bacteria and foreign bodies into the ear. Your auditory system has a self-cleaning system. That’s why you may observe the drainage of excess earwax from your ears. But if the drainage is due to infections or injury it can pose a threat to your auditory system.
Types of ear discharge
Ear drainage may be of different types. It depends on the conditions and what type of substance is coming out of the ear. Let’s discuss some of the categories of ear discharge.
Pus or Cloudy Fluid – This is the most common type of ear discharge. The main cause is an ear infection. The drainage is from a torn eardrum. The eardrum ruptures in about 10% of bacterial ear infections. You may also experience white, yellow, or foul-smelling drainage.
Ear Tube Fluid Release – Children with frequent ear infections may get ventilation tubes put in. These help the middle ear drain its fluids and become dry. Sometimes, the ear tube gets plugged up. Normal fluids build up in the middle ear until the ear tube opens up again. This can cause some clear fluid drainage from the ear canal for a day.
Earwax – Earwax is light brown, dark brown, or orange-brown in color. If it gets wet, it can look like a discharge.
Blood – This follows an injury to the ear. Usually, it’s just a minor scratch of the lining of the ear canal. Bright red ear drainage can be the result of the insertion of foreign objects, cancer, and aspirin or Coumadin.
Water – Bathwater or tears can get in the ear canal. Seeing a clear “discharge” that happens once is likely this.
Ear Drops – The person who sees the discharge may not know someone else put in drops.
Swimmer’s Ear Discharge – Early symptoms are an itchy ear canal. Later symptoms include a whitish, watery discharge. Mainly occurs in swimmers and in the summertime. Ear drainage that is clear or slightly blood-tinged can be caused by skin problems in the ear, such as eczema or swimmer’s ear.
Ear Canal Foreign Body (Object) – Young children may put small objects in their ear canal. It can cause a low-grade infection and pus-colored discharge. If the object was sharp, the discharge may have streaks of blood.
The type of ear discharge reflects the underlying and specific cause. As bloody discharge reflects the entry of foreign objects in the canal, watery discharge reflects the presence of bathwater in the ear. Lets study about the specific causes behind different ear discharges.
What causes ear discharge?
There are general and common as well as rare causes behind ear discharge. Generally, it happens due to general causes but rare causes should not be ignored. Thus we will discuss both.
Common causes of ear drainage
It is natural to see some earwax in the outer canal of the ear. As your ear has a self-cleaning system. Thus drainage of excess earwax from the ear canal is a cleaning process. And you don’t need to worry about this. If an excess of earwax leads to eustachian tube dysfunction, then it should be cleaned manually.
Foreign objects in the body
Whenever foreign objects like cotton swabs are inserted in the ear, it damages the inner cells of the ear membrane and leads to damage to the eardrum. Thus you may observe bloody or white fluid discharge.
Outer ear infection (Swimmers ear)
When you spend long time periods of time in the water, bacteria or fungus may lead to otitis externa or Swimmer’s ear. It infects your ear canal by breaking the walls and skin of the ear canal. It is not susceptible only to water, whenever there is breakage in the skins of the ear canal, it may lead to ear discharge.
Middle ear infections
Otitis Media is a common cause of ear discharge or drainage. The middle ear is located behind the eardrum. When the bacteria or virus enter the middle ear, it leads to the middle ear infection. Due to infection fluid is build up behind the eardrum. As a result, too much fluid leads to the drainage of the ear.
It is a bacterial infection of the mastoid ear cells surrounding the middle and inner ear. An unresolved middle ear infection may lead to mastoiditis. Therefore ongoing mastoiditis may lead to excess drainage from the ear.
A violent hit on your head or head trauma and ear may lead to damage of the internal canal of the ear membrane and cause excessive ear drainage. Cerebral spinal fluid and can indicate damage to the skull, brain, or spine.
The ear drainage in this condition is usually clear but may also be bloody and whitish-yellow. Typically, there is only a small amount of drainage. Insertion of foreign objects, head injury or sudden change in pressure may lead to eardrum perforation. And due to this, you experience clear ear discharge.
Excess of moisture in your ears may lead to an inflammation of the skin of the ear. It usually involves an itchy rash on swollen, reddened skin. Though it causes excessive itching when scratched, the rash can leak fluid and crust over and it leads to ear discharge.
Trauma or Injury
Different types of trauma can lead to ear drainage or discharge
- Trauma to the ear canal is caused due to deep insertion of the foreign objects like cotton swabs. It may cause discharge of ear.
- When you are flying in an airplane or scuba diving, change in altitude cause trauma and leads to eardrum rupture.
- Acoustic trauma is damage to the ear due to extremely loud noises.
Rare causes of ear discharge or drainage
Skull fractures – The ear canal passes through the base of the skull. If a skull fracture (from a severe head injury) involves that part of the skull, blood and/or cerebrospinal fluid may leak from the ear.
Malignant Otitis Externa – It is the particularly worst form of external ear infection occurs only in people with diabetes or those who have a compromised immune system (due to HIV infection or chemotherapy for cancer).
Cancer of the ear canal – Tumors often start as scaly areas or white bumps on the outside of the ear. The area might ooze or drain. A tumor also might start inside the ear canal. The patient might notice drainage from the canal or pain inside the ear.
Cholesteatoma – Development of a noncancerous (benign) growth of skin cells in the middle ear (cholesteatoma) can cause ear discharge.
When should I seek medical attention?
Though ear discharge is a natural phenomenon due to the automatic cleaning system of your ears. But if you are facing the discharge in the form of pus, foul smell watery discharge for longer periods, you should not ignore it. You may face other problems due to ear discharge. Thus the following symptoms will help you to decide whether you should seek medical help or not.
If you are facing the following symptoms due to ear discharge you must seek medical help as soon as possible.
- If you are facing hearing difficulties like hearing loss.
- A ringing of the ear
- If the discharge lasts more than 5 days.
- If there is an excess accumulation of earwax in the ear
- Diabetes or a compromised immune system
Call Doctor now
- Pink or red swelling behind the ear
- Clear or bloody fluid after a head injury
- Bleeding from the ear canal (Exception: few drops and after an ear exam)
- Age less than 12 weeks old with fever. Caution: do NOT give your baby any fever medicine before being seen.
- Fever over 104° F (40° C)
- Your child looks or acts very sick
- You think your child needs to be seen, and the problem is urgent
Call doctor within 24 hours
- Age less than 6 months old
- Ear pain or crying like in pain
- Discharge is yellow or green, cloudy white or smells bad
- Clear drainage (not from a head injury) lasts more than 24 hours
- You think your child needs to be seen, but the problem is not urgent
Treatment options for ear discharge
When you visit your nearby audiologist he will first question about the problems, symptoms you are facing and about the past medical history. So that he may find the specific cause behind your ear discharge.
After the question and discussing you may go under physical examination in which doctors will diagnose your perforated eardrum, external otitis, foreign object, and other common causes of ear discharge.
Well, many causes of ear discharge are revealed after the physical examination. But if he is unable to find the causes he may perform possible tests like Audiometry and CT (Computerised Tomography) or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging).
Treatment depends on the relying cause of the discharge of ear.
Wait and See Approach
For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics describes a 48-hour “wait-and-see” approach, accompanied by close follow-up, as one option for treating mild ear pain in children.
First, you have to observe the symptoms very carefully as mostly ear infection takes one week or two to cover it without any treatment. Well, pain relief medications may be advised to counter the pain.
If your child is suffering from high fever, the doctor may advise antibiotic ear drops. Doctors will treat infections with their antibiotics and ear drops.
Antibiotics like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, ear drops are useful in treating ear infections, ear pain etc. The recovery from these infections will ultimately lead to relief from ear discharge or drainage.
If you have ruptured or perforated eardrum and it doesn’t heal naturally, then your audiologist may involve patching in his treatment. The patch covers the hole when your eardrum heals.
If patching doesn’t work, then your audiologist may perform surgical operations to repair your eardrum.
During an outpatient surgical procedure called a myringotomy, a surgeon creates a tiny hole in the eardrum that enables him or her to suction fluids out of the middle ear. A tiny tube (tympanostomy tube) is placed in the opening to help ventilate the middle ear and prevent the accumulation of more fluids. Some tubes are intended to stay in place for six months to a year and then fall out on their own. Other tubes are designed to stay in longer and may need to be surgically removed.
How can I prevent ear discharge?
You should keep your ears neat and clean. Visit your audiologist to clean your excess earwax if it is posing a threat to your hearing. Washcloth and soft tissue are used to clean the outer canal of the ear in order to prevent an excess of earwax discharge. Doctors also advise ear drops like hydrogen peroxide in order to dissolve ear wax and clean it.
Avoid insertion of foreign objects in the ear like a cotton swab. As due to deep insertion of these objects infections occur and it may lead to ear discharge.
You should dry your ears after involving yourself in water activities like swimming, bathing etc. As too much moisture may cause ear infection and due to this ear drainage will irritate you. Try to drain out water by turning your head to one side and then the other.
According to the Mayo Clinic, breastfeeding may provide infants with protection from ear infections, since they receive their mother’s antibodies in their milk.
If you bottle-feed your baby, you should try holding your infant in an upright position rather than letting them drink lying down.