If you suddenly notice fluid draining out of your ear, you might be worried. Ears don't usually drain unless you have an infection or an injury.

While ear discharge can be alarming, it is almost always treatable. Learn more about why you might have yellow fluid draining from your ear and what to do about it. 

What is ear discharge? 

Ear discharge, or ear drainage, happens when fluid leaks out of your ear. Most of the time, the only discharge you find is the earwax you see in your ear canal. Earwax is easy to recognize, as it is often sticky and yellow or brown. Injuries or infections, however, can lead to fluids like pus or blood leaking out of your ear.

Signs of ear discharge

Fluid

You may notice ear discharge because you can feel the fluid dripping out of the ear canal. You might also find dried fluid crusted on your skin or on your pillowcase. Discharge can be clear, whitish or yellowish, or tinged with blood. Injuries can cause bleeding from your ear. 

Other symptoms

Sometimes, you will notice other symptoms as well as ear discharge. 

You may find that you have: 

Causes of ear discharge 

There are many reasons that your ear could be leaking fluid. You can get an idea of how serious the situation is by looking at the fluid. The color can tell you a lot about what's causing the drainage.

Some cases are harmless and not a cause for alarm. A few of the most common causes of ear drainage include:

Water 

Water from swimming or bathing can stay in the ear canal and drain out later. 

Ear drops

If you put medicine in your ear, you might notice it draining out later.

Earwax

If earwax mixes with water, it can look like a liquid discharge. It will usually be orange, yellow, or brown.

Ear tube drainage

People with chronic ear infections sometimes have ventilation tubes placed in their ears. This is very common among children, and sometimes the tubes allow a clear or yellowish fluid to leak out of the ear. 

Other types of discharge are linked to injury or infection. For these, you will need to visit your doctor. 

Swimmer's ear

Swimmer's ear is a minor infection of the outer ear canal. It can sometimes cause yellow or clear fluid to leak out of the ear.

Middle ear infection

Ear infections behind the ear are very common, especially in children. If the eardrum ruptures, the pus buildup behind the eardrum might drain out of the ear. The fluid may be whitish or yellowish.

Injury

If you’ve been injured, you may have blood drain from your ear. Injuries that cause ear drainage can include damage from foreign objects in the ear as well as more severe head injuries. Some injuries can perforate the eardrum.

In rare cases, ear drainage is a symptom of something more serious like cancer or a skull fracture.


 

When to see the doctor for ear discharge

Unless you know that your ear discharge is something mild like water, you should call your doctor to discuss the problem. Ear discharge along with fever, pain, hearing loss, or dizziness are possible signs of serious health issues.

Drainage is often a sign of a ruptured eardrum that needs to be examined. Your doctor will check to see if the tear in the eardrum will heal on its own or if you need surgery to repair it.

If you are bleeding from your ear as the result of an injury, you may want to call 911. 

Diagnosis for ear discharge

Your doctor will ask how long you have had ear discharge and what other symptoms you have. They will look into your ear to check for damage to the eardrum and signs of infection in your ear canal.

Your doctor may collect a swab of the fluid that’s draining from your ear to send to a lab. They will test the sample to find the cause of infection.

Treatments for ear discharge

The treatment for ear discharge depends on the cause. If you have an ear infection or swimmer's ear, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat it.

If you injured your ear canal but it isn't infected, your doctor may suggest keeping your ear clean and dry. The injury may heal on its own in time. If the injury is infected, your doctor might prescribe medication.

If you have a more severe health condition or injury causing the ear discharge, discuss treatment options with your doctor. 

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Medically Reviewed on 3/23/2021
References
SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Ear Infection."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Perforated Eardrum."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Swimmer's Ear."

Merck Manual: "Ear Discharge."

Mount Sinai: "Ear drainage culture."

Seattle Children's Hospital: "Ear - Discharge."

University of Florida Health: "Ear discharge."