Children's Hospital Colorado

Ear - Discharge

Urgent or Emergency Care?

If you believe your child needs immediate attention and you have concerns for a life-threatening emergency, call 911. Not sure what counts as urgent and what's an emergency when your child is sick or injured? When it can't wait, know where to take your kids.

Help Me Decide

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

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.

Call Doctor Now or Go to ER

  • 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 Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • 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 Doctor During Office Hours

  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • 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 Earache care guide for more advice.
  5. Call Your Doctor If: Your child becomes worse.

Disclaimer

The information contained in these topics is not intended nor implied 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.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before starting any new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Nothing contained in these topics is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment.

  • Not a Substitute - The information and materials in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker should not be used as a substitute for the care and knowledge that your physician can provide to you.
  • Supplement - The information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker are meant to supplement the information that you obtain from your physician. If there is a disagreement between the information presented herein and what your physician has told you -- it is more likely that your physician is correct. He or she has the benefit of knowing your child's medical problems.
  • Limitations - You should recognize that the information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker have the following limitations, in comparison to being examined by your own physician:
    • You can have a conversation with your child's doctor.
    • Your child's doctor can perform a physical examination and any necessary tests.
    • Your child could have an underlying medical problem that requires a physician to detect.
    • If your child is taking medications, they could influence how he experiences various symptoms.

If you think that your child is having a medical emergency, call 911 or the number for the local emergency ambulance service NOW!

And when in doubt, call your child's doctor NOW or go to the closest emergency department.

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By using this website, you accept the information provided herein "AS IS." Neither publishers nor the providers of the information contained herein will have any liability to you arising out of your use of the information contained herein or make any expressed or implied warranty regarding the accuracy, content, completeness, reliability, or efficacy of the information contained within this website.

Copyright 1994-2017 Schmitt Pediatric Guidelines LLC. All rights reserved.

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