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Fluid from the ear

5-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 the 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. You should not use cotton buds or anything else to clean your ears.
  • mastoiditis — an infection of the bone behind your ear, the mastoid, can also cause fluid from the ear, although this is rare. 

How is fluid from the ear treated?

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 will usually 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.

How is fluid from the ear managed?

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. 

Can fluid from the ear be prevented?

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 earmuffs 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 should I 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

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Last reviewed: July 2020

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