Types of ear discharge
It’s not a particularly pleasant topic, but there are different types of ear discharge that could indicate different causes.
Earwax – this is quite normal. Your body always produces this kind of oily substance to keep your ears healthy
Pus/cloudy fluid – due to infection or a fluid build-up behind the eardrum
Bloody – this could indicate a perforated eardrum
Water – sometimes water can get trapped in the ear after swimming or having a shower
Cerebrospinal fluid – this is a clear fluid and is found in the brain and spinal cord. This can happen after ear surgery or some cases of meningitis, brain conditions or skull fractures
Cholesteatoma - a particularly bad-smelling, watery discharge could indicate this condition
As well as drainage from the ear, people can have a number of accompanying symptoms, depending on the underlying cause. These can include:
- Discomfort or pain in the ear
- Feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear
- Some degree of hearing loss in the affected ear
- Feeling dizzy or unsteady on your feet
- High temperature or fever
Ear discharge causes
Ear infection - a middle ear infection is the most common cause of ear discharge. When fluid builds up behind the eardrum, the pressure can cause the eardrum to perforate and the fluid to leak out.
Swimmer’s ear - a type of ear infection found in the ear canal, often caused by trapped water in the ear.
Perforated eardrum - this can happen for a number of reasons, and often involves fluid leaking from the ear.
Cholesteatoma - an abnormal growth of skin behind the eardrum that can cause a smelly, watery discharge from the ear.
Mastoiditis - a rarer condition caused by an infection of the bone found behind the ear. Ear drainage is a common symptom.
Injury or trauma – things like injury to the head or ear, as well as the damage while trying to clean your ears can also lead to ear drainage.
You might be more likely to have otorrhea if you:
- Are a regular swimmer
- Are prone to ear infections
- Have recently had a cold or the flu
- Are diabetic
- Have had a head or ear injury
Ear discharge diagnosis
Because there are so many potential causes behind it, if you have ear discharge, it’s best to go and see your GP. They’ll ask you about your symptoms and will examine your ears with an instrument called an otoscope, which has a light and magnifying lens on the end to allow a clear view inside your ear.
They’ll look for signs of infection, check that your eardrum is healthy and intact, and will be able to find out why you might be experiencing ear discharge. Once they identify the cause, they’ll recommend the right treatment for you.
Treatment will be based on the cause of ear discharge and might include things like:
- Taking antibiotics or steroids (eardrops or tablets) to treat an infection
- Applying a warm compress to the affected ear to make any pain feel better
- Onward referral to a specialist for further tests or treatment
It’s important that you don’t try to clean out the discharge yourself with cotton buds or anything else.
If you have a perforated eardrum, it will need time to heal on its own, but your GP might recommend that you see a specialist for further treatment if the rupture requires patching up with surgery.
It’s not always possible to prevent otorrhea, but there are some things to keep in mind in terms of maintaining good ear health.
- Avoid putting anything in your ears (like cotton buds or hair pins) – they could irritate the skin of the ear canal, cause infection or damage to the eardrum
- If you’re a regular swimmer, you might benefit from wearing ear plugs to reduce your risk of developing swimmer’s ear
- Towel dry your ears and tip your head to drain your ear of any excess water after a shower or going swimming
Ear discharge recovery time
Recovery time will depend on what’s causing your ear discharge. It could last a couple of days, but if it continues any longer, you have any blood or pus draining from the ear or you have any accompanying pain, you should see your GP for advice.
Sometimes otorrhea is simply the natural production of earwax. It might also be caused by an ear infection, swimmer’s ear, a damaged eardrum, injury or trauma as well as more rare causes like cholesteatoma and mastoiditis.
Chronic otorrhea happens when ear discharge lasts for longer than six weeks. This is more common in children and can be due to issues with the eardrum.