Otorrhea is a term that refers to any fluid that comes out of the ear. Normal ear discharge includes water that comes out after exiting a pool or shower, and earwax. Earwax exists to protect your ear from dust and other foreign objects that can cause bacteria to build up. Drainage of water or earwax is classified as spontaneous drainage and is not a cause for concern. However, there are some forms of ear drainage that could indicate a bigger issue. Let’s take a closer look at why your ears may be draining.
Spending time in “dirty water,” like a river or a lake, can introduce bacteria or fungus to the middle ear space when the ear’s natural barriers don’t protect it. The moisture, combined with bacteria in the ear, can cause infection. This condition is called otitis externa, or swimmer’s ear. Damage to the ear canal can make it vulnerable to infection as well.
It is easy to damage our ears with fingers or with cotton swabs. You may think you’re cleaning out your ears, but really you’re introducing bacteria, and if you push a cotton swab into your ear too deep or scratch your ear canal with a fingernail, you’re in danger of infection.
These are both circumstances where the eardrum is intact. There are other situations, when the eardrum is compromised, that can cause ear drainage.
A severe inner ear infection can actually rupture the eardrum. If you have increasing pain and fever with ear pain, then a bloody discharge associated with lessening of pain, this maybe a possible sign of a ruptured eardrum. Holes in the eardrum make it more likely that you’ll get water or debris inside the ear and can cause chronic inflammation, which can lead to a condition called chronic mastoiditis, something to avoid.
In situations where your ear itches all the time, swells, or you experience hearing loss, call for an urgent appointment. Some of these symptoms may indicate more serious ear conditions.
If ear drainage that seems normal continues for weeks or months, it is best to seek medical treatment to rule out infection and other conditions.
If you are experiencing ear drainage accompanied by double vision, severe and frequent headaches, facial weakness or increasing vertigo, visit the ER to make sure there isn’t a more serious underlying condition.