Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Fluid from the ear

4-minute read

Usually fluid or solid material that comes out of your ear is just ear wax, and is normal. However, it can be a sign of an illness or injury in your ear, so it’s worth checking with your doctor if it doesn’t clear up after a few days. 

What is fluid from the ear?

A discharge from the ear, also called otorrhea, is usually just the body getting rid of ear wax — the oil and solid materials you produce naturally to prevent dust and bacteria from getting into your ears. 

But sometimes sticky fluid builds up in the middle ear, behind the ear drum. This mucus can lead to ear infections and loss of hearing, and is very common in children. 

What causes fluid from the ear?

Nearly all children will, at some point, experience a build-up of fluid behind the ear drum. This is known as an ear effusion. There may be no sign of infection, such as a fever, but the child might rub their ear or have some problems with hearing. Your doctor can see the fluid by looking into the ear with a special instrument. 

An ear effusion can cause the middle ear to become inflamed and sometimes the fluid becomes infected. This is called otitis media. The infection is often caused by a virus and leads to earache and pain, fever and irritability in children. Sometimes the build-up of fluid lasts for a long time and the fluid becomes thick and sticky, causing hearing loss which can make learning difficult for children. This is called glue ear.

Fluid from the ear is sometimes caused by swimmer’s ear (also known as otitis externa), when moisture and humidity cause the skin inside the ear canal to swell and become infected. Swimmer’s ear also makes the ear painful and itchy. 

Other less common causes of fluid from the ear include:

  • a ruptured ear drum — blood or other fluid may drain from the ear if you or your child has an ear effusion or otitis media. This is a sign of injury or infection and needs to be seen by a doctor. 
  • damage to your ear — sometimes your ear canal can be injured if you push a cotton bud in too deeply, by changes in pressure, or by very loud noises. This can cause fluid to leak out of your ear. 
  • mastoiditis — an infection of the bone behind your ear, the mastoid, can also cause fluid from the ear, although this is rare. 

Fluid from the ear treatment

Treatment for fluid from the ear will depend on what is causing the problem.

Ear infections in children usually clear up in a couple of days without treatment. Because they are often caused by a virus rather than by bacteria, antibiotics may not work. Usually children with otitis media are given pain relief for 48 hours and then antibiotics only if the symptoms have not cleared up. If you have a child who is unwell with vomiting and fever, if they are under 6 months old, or if they are an Aboriginal child or Torres Strait Islander, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics more quickly. 

Usually injuries to the ear heal without being treated. Sometimes you will need to take antibiotics if your doctor thinks there is a risk of infection due to the injury. 

Swimmer’s ear needs to be treated to stop the infection from spreading. You will usually need antibiotic ear drops for about a week.

Fluid from the ear self-help

You can use pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Make sure to give the correct dosage, particularly to children.

Try to keep the affected ear as dry as possible. If you have an ear infection, you should avoid swimming. 

How to prevent fluid from the ear

Most ear infections are caused by a virus, so stay away from people who are sick and make sure you and your child are up to date with vaccinations.

Breastfeeding reduces the incidence of ear infections in babies. If you are breastfeeding, try to avoid letting milk run into your baby’s ears by feeding the baby upright rather than on their back. 

Don’t put anything in your ears, including cotton buds, pencils, or any other hard object. Use ear plugs or ear muffs to protect your ears from loud noise.

To prevent swimmer’s ear, dry your ears after swimming or showering and wear ear plugs if you swim often. 

When to seek help for fluid from the ear 

Fluid from the ear usually goes away by itself. But see your doctor if:

  • the fluid is white, yellow, or contains blood
  • you have fluid from the ear for more than 5 days
  • you have other symptoms, such as a fever and a lot of pain
  • your ear is swollen or red
  • you can’t hear properly
  • you have had an injury

Last reviewed: July 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Ear problems - myDr.com.au

Common ear problems include otitis media, glue ear, ear wax and swimmer's ear.

Read more on myDr website

Otitis media in children - myDr.com.au

Otitis media (middle ear infection) is a common childhood illness that typically causes earache and fever.

Read more on myDr website

Aquaear | myVMC

Aquaear are ear drops used to treat and prevent swimmers ear. They contain acetic acid which reduces the growth of micro organisms in the ear.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Otitis media (middle ear infection) information | myVMC

Otitis media or middle ear infection is a common childhood condition which may be recurrent. It may cause earache and vertigo, and affect hearing.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Ear health (preventing ear problems) information video | myVMC

Ear health or ear care can prevent ear problems like ear infections, swimmer's ear and hearing loss. Avoiding cotton buds is important for healthy ears.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Ear problems in children | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

Ear problems, like earaches and glue ear, are common in children

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

Parenting and Child Health - Health Topics - Infections in the ear canal (otitis externa or swimmer's ear)

Infections in the ear canal can happen when the lining of the canal is damp such as after spending a lot of time swimming or if it is scratched when something like a cotton bud is poked into the ear canal.

Read more on Women's and Children's Health Network website

Ear infections

It is estimated that around four out of five children will experience a middle ear infection at least once.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Eardrum perforation - perforated eardrum

Eardrum perforation can be caused by infection, a blow to the ear, injury from an object inserted in the ear, or exposure to a sudden loud noise.

Read more on myDr website

Middle ear infection or otitis media | Raising Children Network

Children with middle ear infections usually have pain or discomfort in the ear. If you think your child has a middle ear infection, its wise to see a GP.

Read more on Raising Children Network website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice and information you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo