Yellow discharge from the ear is often a sign of ear wax. The wax may have mixed with water and become more fluid before falling from the ear. In more severe cases, yellow discharge with blood may indicate a ruptured eardrum.
Ears often discharge ear wax to prevent dust, bacteria, and other foreign bodies getting inside the ear and is not usually a cause for concern.
Discharge lasting more than a few days, consisting of other fluids, or appearing along other symptoms may be a sign to see a doctor.
This article discusses the possible causes, symptoms, and treatments for yellow discharge from the ears.
Some possible causes of yellow discharge from the ears may include:
Water in the ear
Sometimes yellow discharge from the ear is simply a mixture of ear wax and liquids, such as water. Swimming, bathing, and showering all expose the ear to water. If water gets in the ear and mixes with ear wax, it may appear as yellowish discharge.
This itself may be unsightly but is not a cause for concern in most cases. However, pay attention to any other symptoms that may appear, and if the discharge lasts longer than a few days.
Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is a bacterial infection of the ear. It commonly occurs when there is extra water in the ear canal, allowing bacteria or fungi to build up and infect the canal.
As the name suggests, swimmer’s ear is associated with spending extended periods in the water. However, any source of bacteria multiplying in the ear can cause it.
Other signs include:
- muffled hearing
- redness in the ear
- itchiness in the ear
Seattle Children’s Hospital note that trauma to the ear canal can leave the ear open to infections. Scraping the ear canal with fingernails may cause open wounds in the area. This may leave the canal more susceptible to infection.
Using other objects, such as toothpicks or cotton swabs, in the ear canal might also cause damage, leading to excessive discharge in the ear.
Signs of trauma include bleeding from the ear, pain, irritation, and hearing loss, or change in hearing.
Middle ear infections
A middle ear infection, or otitis media, may also cause discharge. The CDC indicate that middle ear infections are common, especially in younger children.
Some research indicates that middle ear infections are most common between the ages of 6–24 months.
The infections occur when viruses or bacteria multiply freely in the ear. Infections in the middle ear can cause fluid buildup behind the eardrum. If the fluid continues to build or there is too much pressure behind the eardrum, it may tear, leading to excessive discharge.
Other signs may include:
- loss of balance
- trouble hearing
- ear pain
- trouble sleeping
- high fever
Damage in the ear canal or eardrum may cause a ruptured ear drum. The eardrum is the thin membrane separating the outer ear canal and the middle ear.
Causes of a ruptured eardrum include:
- inserting a foreign object into the ear, such as a toothpick or cotton swab
- loud noises such as explosions or extreme feedback from speakers
- pressure changes, such as from scuba diving or freediving
- injuries and trauma to the head or ear
- severe trauma such as a skull fracture
To accurately diagnose the underlying cause of yellow discharge from the ear, doctors will first do a physical examination. They may look for signs of damage to the outer ear and ear canal and check to see if the eardrum has ruptured.
If doctors notice any foreign objects in the ear, they may wash the ear canal to clear them or order further testing or other procedures to remove the object.
In some cases, doctors may take a sample of the discharge for testing to find the underlying cause, such as identifying the germ causing an infection.
Treatments for the yellow discharge from the ear will vary according to the underlying condition causing the discharge.
In some cases, doctors may not recommend treatment. As the CDC note, doctors may not prescribe antibiotics for ear infections because the body’s immune system can fight off the infection on its own.
However, doctors may prescribe antibiotics for severe cases or cases lasting longer than 2–3 days.
Many cases of ear trauma also heal without medical intervention. In some extreme cases where a foreign object remains stuck in the ear, doctors may recommend surgery to remove the object.
A ruptured eardrum will also often heal without treatment within a few weeks to 2 months. If it does not improve, a person may require tympanoplasty, which is a surgical procedure to repair the hole.
While some treatments for yellow discharge from the ear require no medical treatment, some home remedies may provide some relief.
In general, getting rest and drinking extra water may help the body recover and repair itself. Over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may also help ease pain and inflammation during healing.
Some OTC ear washes may also help remove wax or other debris from the ear to support healing. However, people should only use them under the doctor’s direct orders.
While it may not be possible to prevent every cause of discharge from the ear, some tips may help protect the ear from damage, including:
- avoiding inserting foreign objects, such as cotton swabs, pens, or hairpins, into the ear
- thoroughly dry the ears after washing or swimming
- allowing water to drain from the ears after bathing or swimming by tilting the head to each side
- taking precautions to avoid pressure damage, such as when scuba diving or flying
- wearing earplugs to muffle loud noises, such as heavy machinery or large speakers at concerts
- using OTC ear drops to help clean the ears after swimming
Yellow discharge from the ear is usually not a cause for concern. However, anyone experiencing concerning symptoms should see their doctor.
Symptoms may include:
- discharge that persists for more than a few days
- discharge with signs of blood in it
- streaks of white or yellow pus in the discharge
- discharge with a foul odor
- severe pain
- other symptoms along with the discharge, such as fever and headache
- hearing loss or changes in hearing
- redness and swelling in the ear canal itself
- discharge that occurs after an injury
In many cases, yellow ear discharge is simply a sign of excess earwax or wax that has mixed with water or sweat and fallen from the ear.
People who experience other symptoms along with yellow discharge, such as streaks of blood, hearing loss, or pain and inflammation, should see a doctor.
Ruptured eardrums and infections may cause excessive discharge and need treatment. Seeing a doctor for a full diagnosis can rule out serious issues and help prevent complications.