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Ear Discharge

By

David M. Kaylie

, MS, MD, Duke University Medical Center

Last full review/revision Mar 2021| Content last modified Mar 2021
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Causes of Ear Discharge

Discharge may originate from the ear canal, the middle ear, or, rarely, from inside the skull.

Overall, the most common causes of ear discharge 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 of ear discharge 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.

Some people with chronic otitis media develop a noncancerous (benign) growth of skin cells in the middle ear (cholesteatoma Otitis Media (Chronic Suppurative) Chronic suppurative otitis media is a long-standing, persistently draining perforation of the eardrum (tympanic membrane). Acute otitis media and blockage of a eustachian tube are among the... read more Otitis Media (Chronic Suppurative) ) 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.

Evaluation of Ear Discharge

The following information can help people with ear discharge decide when a doctor's evaluation is needed and help them know what to expect during the evaluation.

Warning signs

In people with ear discharge, certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern:

  • Recent major head injury

  • Any neurologic symptoms (such as vertigo or difficulty seeing, speaking, swallowing, and/or talking)

  • Hearing loss in the affected ear

  • Fever

  • Redness and/or swelling of the ear or area around the ear

  • Diabetes or a compromised immune system

When to see a doctor

People with warning signs should see a doctor right away. People without warning signs should see a doctor as soon as possible and avoid getting water in the ear until it can be evaluated.

What the doctor does

In people with ear discharge, 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 Some Causes and Features of Ear Discharge Some Causes and Features of Ear Discharge 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... read more ).

During the medical history, doctors ask about the following:

  • Activities that can affect the ear canal or eardrum (for example, swimming; insertion of objects, including cotton swabs; and use of ear drops)

  • Whether people have had repeated ear infections

  • Any severe head injury

Table
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Testing

Treatment of Ear Discharge

Treatment for ear discharge 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.

Key Points about Ear Discharge

  • Acute discharge in people without longstanding ear problems or a weakened immune system is usually not dangerous and is typically due to an external ear infection or a perforated eardrum resulting from a middle ear infection.

  • People who have chronic ear symptoms or any symptoms besides ear discharge (particularly any neurologic symptoms) should be evaluated by a specialist.

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