Should Your Child See a Doctor?

Ear Discharge

This Care Guide Covers

  • Drainage of substances/liquids with different colors and consistency from the ear canal
  • Drainage through an ear tube is included

See Other Care Guide If

  • After an ear injury. See EAR INJURY.
  • Began while doing lots of swimming. See EAR - SWIMMER'S

Health Information

Types of Ear Discharge

  • Pus or Cloudy Fluid. This is the most common type of ear discharge. The main cause is an ear infection. The drainage is from a torn eardrum. The eardrum ruptures in about 10% of bacterial ear infections.
  • Ear Tube Fluid Release. Children with frequent ear infections may get ventilation tubes put in. These help the middle ear drain its fluids and become dry. Sometimes, the ear tube gets plugged up. Normal fluids build up in the middle ear until the ear tube opens up again. This can cause some clear fluid drainage from the ear canal for a day.
  • Earwax. Earwax is light brown, dark brown, or orange brown in color. If it gets wet, it can look like a discharge.
  • Blood. This follows an injury to the ear. Usually, it's just a minor scratch of the lining of the ear canal.
  • Water. Bath water or tears can get in the ear canal. Seeing a clear "discharge" that happens once is likely this.
  • Ear Drops. The person who sees the discharge may not know someone else put in drops.
  • Swimmer's Ear Discharge. Early symptoms are an itchy ear canal. Later symptoms include a whitish, watery discharge. Mainly occurs in swimmers and in the summer time.
  • Ear Canal Foreign Body (Object). Young children may put small objects in their ear canal. It can cause a low grade infection and pus colored discharge. If the object was sharp, the discharge may have streaks of blood.

When To Call Your Doctor

Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If

  • Pink or red swelling behind the ear
  • Clear or bloody fluid after a head injury
  • Bleeding from the ear canal (Exception: few drops and after an ear exam)
  • Age under 12 weeks old with fever. (Caution: Do NOT give your baby any fever medicine before being seen.)
  • Fever over 104° F (40° C)
  • Your child looks or acts very sick.
  • You think your child needs to be seen, and the problem is urgent.

Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours If

  • Age less than 6 months old
  • Ear pain or crying like in pain
  • Discharge is yellow or green, cloudy white or smells bad
  • Clear drainage (not from a head injury) lasts more than 24 hours
  • You think your child needs to be seen, but the problem is not urgent.

Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If

  • You have other questions or concerns

Parent Care at Home If

  • Normal earwax or other harmless discharge

Care Advice for Ear Discharge

  1. Earwax:
    • Ear wax protects the lining of the ear canal and has germ-killing properties.
    • If the earwax is removed, the ear canals become itchy.
    • Do not use cotton swabs (Q-tips) in your child's ear.
    • Call Your Doctor If: Begins to look like pus (yellow or green discharge).
  2. Clear Discharge (without head injury):
    • Most likely, this is from tears or water that entered the ear canal. This can happen during a bath, shower, swimming or water fight.
    • Don't overlook eardrops your child or someone else used without telling you.
    • In children with ventilation tubes, some clear or slightly cloudy fluid can occur. This happens when a tube blockage opens up and drains.
    • Call Your Doctor If: Clear drainage lasts for more than 24 hours.
  3. Blood After Ear Exam:
    • Sometimes, ear wax needs to be removed by your doctor to see the eardrum. If ear wax was removed, it can cause a small scratch inside the ear canal. This happens about 10% of the time. The scratch oozes 1 or 2 drops of blood and then clots.
    • This should heal up in a few days.
    • It shouldn't affect the hearing.
    • Don't put anything in the ear canal. This may start the bleeding again.
    • Call Your Doctor If: Bleeding starts again.
  4. Cloudy Discharge - Ear Infection:
    • Cloudy fluid or pus draining from the ear canal usually means there's an ear infection.
    • The pus drains because there's a small tear in the eardrum.
    • To help with the pain, give an acetaminophen product (such as Tylenol). Another choice is an ibuprofen product (such as Advil). Use as needed. See Dose Table.
    • See Earache for more advice.
    • Call Your Doctor If: Your child becomes worse.

Remember! Contact your doctor if your child develops any of the "When to Call" symptoms.


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This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author: Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 1/2/2014

Last Revised: 4/4/2014 11:45:13 AM

Content Set: Child Symptom Checker

Version Year: 2014

Copyright 1994-2014 Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.