What are the causes of ear drainage?

Updated July 19, 2017

Ear drainage is usually a discharge of blood, earwax, pus or fluid, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Your ears are designed to stay dry and clean. Earwax is a natural cleaning agent designed to keep ear canals sterile and clear. Foreign objects, medical conditions and injuries can affect your ears' natural processes and cause drainage.

Ear Infection

When determining the cause of ear drainage, note the colour, consistency and smell. Most outer-ear infections cause recognisable symptoms before you experience ear drainage. Ear infections are painful, causing a constant earache that intensifies when you press behind you ear. Drainage from an ear infection could be chunky and thick, or thin and sticky,depending on the type of infection. All drainage has a foul odour. You can smell an ear infection if you lean in toward someone's ear. If you have a foul smelling, green, white or light yellow discharge coming from your ear, it's most likely an ear infection. According to the National Institutes of Health, ear discharge that is white or yellow, and accompanied by pain, fever, headache or loss of hearing, requires medical attention.

Membrane Rupture

Your ear drums (tympanic membranes) are situated at the back of each ear canal. The eardrum is a thin flexible membrane that aids in hearing and protects the rest of your ear from fluid, earwax and debris. During a sinus infection, head cold, flu or allergy attack, fluid can become trapped behind your eardrum. If the fluid contains bacteria you can develop a middle ear infection. If left untreated, the infection will cause your eardrum to rupture, causing a slightly bloody, yellow or white smelly drainage.

An eardrum can rupture from head trauma. A membrane rupture without infection will cause a slightly bloody, clearer, mucous consistency drainage from your ear.

Middle ear tumours, although rare, can grow behind your ear drum. Eventually, the tumour will rupture or break through your eardrum, causing a more bloody, thinner drainage with a heavier flow.

Ruptured membranes are usually severely painful and cause sudden deafness in the affected ear.


According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common fluid draining from ears is earwax. Every ear produces earwax. Some people produce dry, flaky wax, while others produce wet, sticky wax. Some people produce a liquidy earwax. Drainage occurs because chewing and jaw motion naturally pushes earwax to your outer ear canal. Earwax has a slight sour odour, yellow brown colour and is bitter to the taste. It's safe to use a tissue or cotton swab to clean only the outer portion of your ear lobes and canal opening. Avoid sticking swabs inside your ear canal. Cotton swabs are the most common cause of earwax impaction, which can lead to ear infection.

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About the Author

In the hot desert of Arizona, Nadia Benavidez has been studying hearing instrument science since 2002. After leaving a clinical practice, Benavidez has put her talent to work writing informative articles related to health and wellness. Currently Benavidez is working on her first book.