“Otorrhea” is the medical word for ear drainage. It can happen as a result of trauma or an ear infection, such as otitis media or swimmer’s ear. Sometimes, otorrhea indicates a more serious condition, especially if it develops after a head injury. Otorrhea treatment depends on the cause.
Otorrhea is drainage that comes out of your ear. Sometimes, people refer to otorrhea as “runny ears” or “watery ears.”
Most commonly, otorrhea is the result of a ruptured eardrum from an ear infection. When there’s a hole in your eardrum, the fluid in your middle ear drains out into your ear canal. But other conditions can cause otorrhea too, including swimmer’s ear, an unknown object stuck in your ear or, less commonly, head trauma.
Although the most common reason for otorrhea is infection, having otorrhea doesn’t necessarily mean you have one.
In most cases, otorrhea is a symptom of a middle ear infection (otitis media) or an outer ear infection/inflammation (otitis externa). But otorrhea can also occur if you have an unknown object stuck in your ear. Less commonly, the condition can develop following a major head injury.
Otorrhea is most common in children, but it affects adults too. In children, the condition is usually associated with ear infections. Trauma or injury often causes otorrhea in adults.
Otorrhea is also the presentation of middle ear infection after ear tube placement. It occurs in up to 17% of cases. If your child has ear tubes, you may be advised to use antibiotic drops to stop the drainage. If the drainage doesn't stop after a course of antibiotic drops, your child's healthcare provider will usually have them come in to investigate further.
Children or adults who have otorrhea due to otitis externa or swimmer’s ear can reduce the risk of otorrhea by wearing specialized ear plugs when in the water. Or you can coat a cotton ball in petroleum jelly and place it in your ear canal.
There are five types of otorrhea:
Otorrhea is very common. It’s associated with several harmless (benign) and serious conditions. Most commonly, it’s a condition that develops due to ear infections.
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The main symptom of otorrhea is drainage from your ear. This drainage may be odorless or it may smell foul. It can be thin or thick in consistency and clear, yellowish or green in color.
Other common otorrhea symptoms include:
Some people develop more serious symptoms, including:
These people may have also had a history of recent head trauma.
Common otorrhea causes include:
Less common otorrhea causes include:
Otorrhea itself isn’t contagious nor are ear infections in general. But if you have a cold as the result of an ear infection, it can spread to other people through coughing or sneezing.
Your healthcare provider will perform a physical examination, which generally includes:
In many cases, a physical examination is all that’s necessary to diagnose otorrhea. But your healthcare provider may also recommend some tests to confirm your diagnosis, including:
Otorrhea treatment focuses on the cause of ear drainage. For example, if otorrhea is the result of a bacterial infection in your middle ear, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe antibiotics. Your provider will likely treat outer ear infections with antibiotic ear drops.
If you have a ruptured eardrum, it may heal on its own in a few weeks. But some people need surgery (tympanoplasty) to close the hole.
If the cause isn’t immediately determined, your provider may refer you to a specialist. People who have chronic ear infections may need to see an otolaryngologist (ENT). If head trauma is a suspected cause, your provider will likely refer you to a neurosurgeon for further evaluation and treatment.
As most otorrhea causes are unavoidable, you can’t completely prevent the condition. But in people who have repeated episodes of swimmer’s ear, using specialized ear plugs when swimming or bathing can help reduce the risk of ear drainage.
Most of the time, otorrhea treatment is straightforward. Your healthcare provider will likely prescribe oral antibiotics or antibiotic ear drops to clear up any infection.
If you or your child has chronic ear infections, your provider may refer you to an ENT for more testing.
When otorrhea is a side effect of a recent head injury, your provider will immediately refer you to a neurosurgeon to determine next steps. This is an emergency that needs immediate attention.
Otorrhea may be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). How long it lasts depends on the cause.
If you have ear drainage that lasts for more than three days, you should call your healthcare provider to schedule an appointment. You should also schedule an appointment right away if you’re having pain, fevers or redness around your ear or neck. Otorrhea is a symptom of several different conditions, both benign and serious. Prompt diagnosis is important.
If you’ve developed ear drainage following a recent head trauma or injury, call 911 or head to your nearest emergency room right away. You should also seek immediate care if you have trouble swallowing, speaking or seeing.
Some questions you may want to ask your healthcare provider include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Otorrhea refers to ear drainage, and it’s caused by many different things. Most of the time, it’s the result of an ear infection or ruptured eardrum. It usually goes away in a few days with treatment. In some instances though, otorrhea can mean you have another serious health issue. So it’s best to see your healthcare provider at the first sign of trouble.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/20/2022.
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