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Ear discharge is any fluid that comes from the ear. It’s also known as otorrhea.
Most of the time your ears will discharge earwax. This is an oil that your body naturally produces. The job of earwax is to make sure that dust, bacteria, or other foreign bodies don’t get into your ear.
However, other conditions, such as a ruptured eardrum, can cause blood or other fluids to drain from your ear. This is a sign that your ear has been injured or infected and requires medical attention.
In most cases, discharge from your ear is simply ear wax making its way out of your body. This is natural. Other conditions that can cause discharge include infection or injury.
Ear infections are one of the most common causes of discharge from the ear. An ear infection occurs when bacteria or viruses makes their way into the middle ear. The middle ear is behind the eardrum. It contains three bones called ossicles. These are vital to hearing. Ear infections cause fluid to build up in the ear, which can lead to ear discharge.
Trauma to the ear canal can also cause discharge. Such trauma can occur while cleaning your ear with a cotton swab if you push it in too deep.
An increase in pressure, such as when you’re flying in an airplane or scuba diving, can result in trauma to your ear. These situations may cause your eardrum to rupture or tear.
Acoustic trauma is damage to the ear due to extremely loud noises. Acoustic trauma can also cause your eardrum to rupture. However, these cases are not as common.
Otitis externa, commonly known as swimmer’s ear, occurs when bacteria or fungus infects your ear canal. It usually occurs when you spend long periods of time in water. Too much moisture inside your ear can break down the skin on the walls of your ear canal. This allows bacteria or fungus to enter and cause an infection.
However, swimmer’s ear isn’t exclusive to swimmers. It can result whenever there’s a break in the skin of the ear canal. This might occur if you have irritated skin as a result of eczema. It can also occur if you insert a foreign object into the ear. Any damage to your ear canal makes it more susceptible to infection.
A less common cause for ear discharge is malignant otitis externa, a complication of swimmer’s ear that causes damage to the cartilage and bones in the base of the skull.
Other rare causes include a skull fracture, which is a break in any of the bones in the skull, or mastoiditis, which is an infection of the mastoid bone behind your ear.
You should call your doctor if the discharge from your ear is white, yellow, or bloody or if you’ve had discharge for more than five days. Sometimes ear discharge may occur with other symptoms, such as a fever. Tell your doctor if you have an accompanying symptoms.
If you experience serious pain, your ear is swollen or red, or you have a loss of hearing, you should see your doctor.
An injury to the ear that causes discharge is another reason to consult a doctor.
Treatment of your ear discharge will depend on its cause. In some cases, your condition won’t need medical treatment. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics allows a "wait-and-see" approach, accompanied by close follow-up, as one option for treating mild ear pain in children.
Signs of an ear infection usually start to clear up within the first week or two, without any treatment. Pain medications might be necessary to deal with any pain or discomfort. If your child is under 6 months old or has a fever over 102.2°F, your doctor might prescribe antibiotic eardrops.
Most cases of ear trauma also heal without treatment. If you have a tear in your eardrum that doesn’t heal naturally, your doctor might apply a special paper patch to the tear. This patch will keep the hole closed while your eardrum heals. If a patch doesn’t work, your doctor might surgically repair your ear using a patch of your own skin.
A doctor should treat swimmer’s ear to prevent the infection from spreading. Typically, your doctor will give you antibiotics in the form of eardrops to use for about a week. In severe cases, oral antibiotics will also be necessary.
To avoid ear infections, try to stay away from people who are sick. Breastfeeding provides infants with protection from ear infections, since they receive their mother’s antibodies in the milk. If you bottle-feed your baby, the Mayo Clinic advises trying to hold the infant in an upright position to prevent ear infections.
Keep foreign objects out of your ears to avoid rupturing your eardrum. If you know you’ll be in an area with excessive noise, bring ear plugs or muffs to protect your eardrums.
You can prevent swimmer’s ear by making sure to dry your ears after being in the water. Also, try to drain any water by turning your head to the side. You can also use over-the-counter medicated eardrops after swimming to control and alleviate swimmer’s ear.
Written by: Carmella Wint
Medically reviewed on: Feb 25, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine
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