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When Is Ear Drainage a Medical Emergency?

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Updated July 07, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: When Is Ear Drainage a Medical Emergency?
Answer:

There are a few different types of ear drainage, including blood, clear or milky white liquid, and -- most commonly -- ear wax. Drainage may also be a sort of combination of the three.

Ear wax is yellow to orange-brown in color and is generally not a medical problem. Other types of drainage, however, can indicate conditions that may require medical attention.

Ear Drainage Caused by a Ruptured Ear Drum

In most cases, a ruptured ear drum is not a medical emergency; however, it should be checked out by a doctor. The ear drainage in this condition is usually clear, but may be slightly tinged with blood. There typically is only a small amount of drainage.

A ruptured ear drum can occur from barotrauma (caused by rapid changes in ambient pressure), infections, or loud noises. While ruptured ear drums usually heal on their own, it's important to schedule an appointment with your doctor, as he may want to check for an infection and prescribe antibiotics just in case.

More serious perforations of the ear drum can be caused by foreign objects, such as a sharp pencil or a severe blow to the head. These types of conditions require immediate medical attention.

Ear Drainage Caused by Excessive Ear Wax

Ear wax draining from the ear is generally normal and does not require medical intervention. However, this can occasionally be caused by an ear wax blockage. Symptoms include a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear, as well as slight hearing loss. If you have these symptoms, you may need a physician to remove the ear wax.

Ear Drainage Caused by an Infection

Ear drainage caused by an infection can be milky white to yellow and may have a foul odor. Other signs of infection are pain and fever. This is not an emergency, but you do need to see a doctor. Antibiotics will probably be needed to clear up an infection.

Ear Drainage Caused by Head Injuries

This is the most dangerous type of ear drainage and does require immediate medical intervention. Drainage may be clear or bloody. Large amounts of clear drainage may actually be cerebral spinal fluid and can indicate damage to the skull, brain, or spine. Do not move someone who is on the ground after falling victim to a head or neck injury; instead, call emergency medical services.

To reiterate, get immediate medical attention in the case of:

  • severe pain that won't subside
  • a persistently high fever
  • a significant amount of bright red blood coming from the ear
  • a significant blow to the head
  • sudden hearing loss
  • a sharp object that has caused bloody drainage

Over-the-counter acetaminophen can be used to control pain and fever. Also, be sure to see a doctor if the drainage does not go away after about 5 days or if you cannot get the drainage to stop. The majority of cases are not serious, but it's important to see your physician if you have any of the above symptoms.

Sources:

Medline Plus. Ear Discharge. Accessed: July 20 2010 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003042.htm

University of Maryland Medical Center. Ear Discharge - Overview. Accessed: July 20, 2010 from http://www.umm.edu/ency/article/003042.htm

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