Ear discharge (otorrhea) is drainage from the ear. The drainage may be watery, bloody, or thick and whitish, like pus (purulent). Depending on the cause of the discharge, people may also have ear pain, fever, itching, vertigo (see Symptoms of Ear Disorders: Dizziness and Vertigo), ringing in the ear (tinnitus—see Symptoms of Ear Disorders: Ear Ringing or Buzzing), and/or hearing loss (see Hearing Loss and Deafness: Hearing Loss). Symptoms range from sudden and severe to slowly developing and mild.
Discharge may originate from the ear canal, the middle ear, or, rarely, from inside the skull.
Overall, the most common causes are
In some people with otitis media (usually children), the eardrum ruptures, releasing the infected material collected behind the eardrum. The hole in the eardrum almost always heals, but sometimes a small perforation remains. A perforation may also result from injury or surgery to the eardrum. When a perforation is present, people are at risk of chronic middle ear infections, which can cause ear discharge.
Serious, but rare, causes include
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.
Necrotizing, or malignant, external otitis is a particularly severe form of external ear infection that typically occurs only in people with diabetes or those who have a compromised immune system (due to HIV infection or chemotherapy for cancer).
Some people with chronic otitis media develop a noncancerous (benign) growth of skin cells in the middle ear (cholesteatoma) that can cause discharge. Although a cholesteatoma is noncancerous, it can cause significant damage to the ear and nearby structures. In severe cases, a cholesteatoma may lead to deafness, facial weakness or paralysis, and complications with the brain such as an abscess and other infections.
The following information can help people decide when a doctor's evaluation is needed and help them know what to expect during the evaluation.
In people with ear discharge, certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern:
When to see a doctor:
People with warning signs should see a doctor right away. People without warning signs should see a doctor within several days and avoid getting water in the ear until it can be evaluated.
What the doctor does:
Doctors first ask questions about the person's symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause of the ear discharge and the tests that may need to be done (see Table 2: Symptoms of Ear Disorders: Some Causes and Features of Ear Discharge).
During the medical history, doctors ask about the following:
During the physical examination, doctors focus on examining the ears, nose, throat, and neurologic system. By examining the ear canal with a light, doctors can usually diagnose perforated eardrum, external otitis, foreign body, and other common causes of ear discharge. Other findings (see Table 2: Symptoms of Ear Disorders: Some Causes and Features of Ear Discharge) suggest the diagnosis.
Many causes are clear after the doctor's examination. Possible tests include
If the cause is not clear, doctors usually do a formal hearing test (audiometry—see Hearing Loss and Deafness: Testing) and computed tomography (CT) or gadolinium-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). If abnormal tissue is present in the ear canal, a tissue sample (biopsy) may be taken. Sometimes culture swabs are taken of the drainage to identify infection.
Treatment is directed at the cause. People who have a large perforation of the eardrum are advised to keep water out of the ear. People can keep water out of the ear while showering or washing their hair by coating a cotton ball with petroleum jelly and placing it at the opening of the ear canal. Doctors can also make plugs out of silicone and place them in the canal. Such plugs are carefully sized and shaped so that they do not get lodged deep in the ear canal and cannot be removed. People who have a small perforation, such as that caused by a ventilation tube, should ask a doctor whether they need to keep water out of the ear. A cholesteatoma is treated surgically.
Last full review/revision January 2013 by Debara L. Tucci, MD, MS