Ear discharge

Also called leaking ear

Ear discharge is drainage of earwax, pus, blood or other fluid from the ear.

Most of the time, any fluid leaking out of an ear is earwax. However, sometimes discharge from the ear could be a sign of a more serious issue.

Warning signs – when to see your doctor
See your doctor if:
  • you experience severe pain
  • you have ear discharge that is white, yellow, clear, or bloody
  • you think the discharge is due to an injury to your ear or head
  • the discharge has lasted more than 5 days
  • you have other symptoms as well, such as fever or headache
  • your hearing is affected and you cannot hear clearly.

What causes ear discharge?

Discharge or drainage from the ear could be caused by a number of things such as: 

Earwax

One of the most common causes of fluid leaking out of an ear is earwax. This is naturally produced by the body to protect the inside of your ear from water and infection. Usually, earwax moves slowly from the inside to the outside of your ear, where it is washed away. Sometimes earwax can build up and block the ear canal. Read more about earwax build-up and removal

A perforated eardrum

The ear drum is a thin tissue inside your ear, that separates your outer ear and middle ear. When sounds waves enter your ear, the ear drum vibrates, enabling you to hear. A perforated ear drum is a small hole or tear in your eardrum. It usually heals within a few weeks or months provided your ear is kept dry and there’s no infection, but sometimes it can cause a white, slightly bloody, or yellow fluid from the ear.

Causes of a perforated eardrum include:

  • Inserting an object in the ear canal such as cotton buds or other small objects.
  • Injury from a blow to the head.
  • Sudden changes in pressure such while flying at high altitude or when scuba diving. 

Infection of the middle ear

Also called otitis media or glue ear. This occurs when bacteria or viruses get into the fluid in the middle of the ear, behind the eardrum, causing pain and discomfort. Read more about ear infections.

Grommets

Grommets are tiny plastic tubes inserted into your child's ear drum in a short operation. They may be recommended if your child has glue ear that won't clear up or frequent ear infections. Grommets allow air into the space behind the ear drum (middle ear) which reduces the risk of fluid building up there. If an infection does occur, the resultant pus flows out through the grommet.

Swimmer's ear

Swimmer's ear (also called otitis externa) is a condition that causes pain and swelling of the outer ear canal, between the eardrum and the outer ear. It can also affect the skin on the outside of the ear, with symptoms such as itching, a red or moist ear canal and pain that increases when you move the earlobe. Read more about swimmer's ear.

Doctor's visit – what to expect

See your doctor is you are concerned about ear discharge. Your doctor will look inside your ears and may ask questions, such as:

  • When did the ear discharge begin?
  • What does it look like?
  • How long has it lasted?
  • Does it leak all the time or off-and-on?
  • What other symptoms do you have (for example, fever, ear pain, headache)?

Your doctor may take a sample of the ear drainage and send it to the laboratory for examination. Depending on the cause of the discharge, your doctor may recommend ear drops or other medication.

Learn more

Discharging ear Ear Nurse Specialist Group, NZ
Ear infection with discharge BMJ Patient information, 2016
Perforated eardrum NHS Choices