Ear Drainage: Types and Meaning

Ear tube to help drain fluid in the ear
Ear tube to help drain fluid in the ear. By BruceBlaus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ear drainage can be a sign of several conditions, depending on what type of fluid is coming from the ear. The most common causes for ear drainage include:

Other less common causes of ear drainage include:

  • cancer
  • psoriasis
  • polyps
  • fungal infection

Ear Drainage Caused By Excess Ear Wax

Ear wax is the most common substance seen coming from the ear. It is normal for a small amount of ear wax to be seen in the outer ear canal. To keep this at bay, some ENT doctors recommend using a washcloth or tissue over your little finger to clean the outer ear canal only. Using Q-tips at any time for the removal of ear wax is not recommended. Using a Q-tip can not on push the ear wax in further, but can also cause trauma to the ear drum.

Large amounts of ear wax coming from the ear may indicate a blockage or a problem with ear wax overproduction. If this is the case, the ear wax may be removed by a physician. You should never remove it without consulting your doctor first. Ear drops that can dissolve ear wax may be used if needed. Ear wax can also be flushed out using warm water and a syringe, but this should only be done as instructed by your physician.

Ear Drainage Caused By a Perforated Ear Drum

Clear, watery ear drainage that may be slightly tinged with blood is usually caused by a perforated ear drum. This means that the eardrum (also called the tympanic membrane) has a tear or hole that is allowing the fluid inside the ear to drain out.

This type of injury can be caused by inserting things into the ear, such as Q-tips, paper clips, or hair pins.

It can also be caused by ear infections, pressure changes (called barotrauma) and extremely loud noises.

A minor tear in the ear drum will usually heal on its own in about a week; however, you may want to see your doctor, who might prescribe antibiotics if an infection is suspected.

Clear Ear Drainage

Clear or blood-tinged ear drainage can also be caused by skin problems in the ear, such as eczema or swimmer's ear. In this case, the ear drainage is the result of a weeping wound and should resolve within a few days. In rare instances, clear ear drainage can be the result of a cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) leak. Leaks most commonly occur due to traumatic injuries or surgeries, or as a result of chronic ear disease including chronic middle ear infections or cancer.

If you have a traumatic injury, you should always seek medical attention. Fluid from a trauma may be blood tinged but in the case of a CSF leak, can still be clear. 

Bleeding From the Ear

Bright red ear drainage is generally the result of a serious condition and should be seen by a doctor.

Bloody ear drainage can be the result of a foreign object in the ear, which is fairly common in children or a head injury. There are also certain medical conditions, such as cancer, that may cause bloody ear drainage. People who are on blood-thinning medications, such as aspirin or Coumadin (warfarin), may be more likely to have bloody ear drainage.

Other Colors of Ear Drainage

Aside from ear wax, blood, and clear ear drainage, you may also see: white, yellow, or have foul-smelling drainage. These types of ear drainage always need to have a doctor to evaluate. This is usually as a result of some sort of active infection that needs to be evaluated. Also, be sure to always consult your doctor if the drainage does not resolve within approximately 5 days or if the ear drainage begins as a result of a head injury.


Jégouxa, F., Malarda, O., Gayet-Delacroixb, M., Bordurea, P., Legenta, F. & Beauvillain de Montreuila, C. (2005). Hyrtl’s Fissure: A Case of Spontaneous Cerebrospinal Fluid Otorrhea. AJNR 26:963-966.

Strother, C.G. & Sadow, K. (2015). Evaluation of otorrhea (ear discharge) in children. http:/www.uptodate.com (subscription required).

Tucci, D.L. (2013). Otorrhea. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/approach-to-the-patient-with-ear-problems/otorrhea

Turner, J.S. (1990). Otalgia and Otorrhea. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK227/

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