Ear discharge

Key points about ear discharge

  • Ear discharge is mucus, pus, blood or other liquid coming from your ear.
  • Often what comes our of your ear is earwax and flakes of skin, which can be mixed with water if you've been swimming.
  • But mucus, pus or blood coming from your ear could be a sign of a more serious problem.
  • If you have ear discharge, especially for the first time and you don't have an ongoing treatment plan, get advice from your healthcare provider.


Young girl with finger in her right ear
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Earwax is naturally produced by the body to protect the inside of your ear from water and infection. It's golden brown and wet if you are of European or African ethnicity. It may be yellow or white and dry if your ethnicity is East Asian or Pasifika. 

If it’s earwax coming from your ear it shouldn’t hurt. Usually, earwax moves slowly from the inside to the outside of your ear, where it is wiped away. Sometimes earwax can build up and block the ear canal. Read more about Read more about earwax build-up and removal.  

Otitis externa (swimmer's ear)

This is infection of the skin in the outer ear canal, between the eardrum and the outer part of your ear. It can also affect the skin around your ear. It causes itching and discharge from your ear which can be thin and clear or yellow.  As time goes on your ear canal can get red and swollen, with pain that gets worse when you move your earlobe. This is the most common cause of ear discharge in adults (even if you haven’t been swimming.) Read more about otitis externa.

Otitis media (middle ear infection)

This happens when bacteria or cold viruses get into the middle of your ear, behind the eardrum. It's painful. Pus can build up and burst the eardrum, then the pus comes out of your ear. It looks thick and white, yellow or brown, sometimes with blood. When your eardrum bursts the ear pain usually gets better. This is the most common cause of ear discharge in children.

Close-up of girl's ear with pus draining from it

Image credit: Gzzz Wikimedia Commons

A perforated eardrum

There are other causes of burst eardrums which can cause ear discharge. The eardrum is a thin tissue inside your ear, that separates your outer ear and middle ear. When sounds waves enter your ear, the eardrum vibrates, sending messages to your brain which allow you to hear. A perforated eardrum 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.

Other causes of a perforated eardrum include:

  • Putting something in your ear like a cotton bud or hair clip.
  • Injury from hitting your head hard.
  • Sudden changes in pressure eg, when flying at high altitude or scuba diving.  


Grommets are tiny plastic tubes inserted through the eardrum for people (usually children) who have glue ear. Glue ear is mucus in the middle ear that won't go away. Grommets allow air into the space behind the eardrum (middle ear) which reduces the risk of fluid building up there. If you have grommets and you do get a middle ear infection, the pus flows out through the grommet. 

It’s best to make an appointment with your healthcare provider about ear discharge unless it’s a problem you’ve had before and you already have a treatment plan.

Depending on the cause of the discharge, your healthcare provider may recommend ear drops or other medication. Most causes are easily treated but there are some rare serious causes which will need a specialist.

Ask for an urgent appointment if, along with ear discharge, you or your child have:

  • a drooping face
  • swelling and severe pain behind the ear
  • severe headache or confusion
  • a clear watery discharge after a hard hit to the head.

Discharging ear(external link) Ear Nurse Specialist Group, NZ
Perforated eardrum(external link) NHS Choices


  1. Yoshiura K, Kinoshita A, Ishida T, et al. A SNP in the ABCC11 gene is the determinant of human earwax type(external link) Nature Genetics 2006;38(3):324-330. 
  2. The discharging ear(external link) Goodfellow Unit, NZ, 2015

The discharging ear(external link) Goodfellow Unit, NZ, 2015

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Dr Emma Dunning, Clinical Editor and Advisor

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