What is Otorrhea?

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  • Written By: Nat Robinson
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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Otorrhea is the medical term given to an ear discharge. Several different conditions may cause a person to experience discharge from an ear. Some of the most common causes include various types of infection, the entrance of a foreign object into the ear and injury to the brain. The different reasons for the discharge will generally result in different types of drainage being experienced. Generally, the treatment of otorrhea will depend on the cause of the discharge.

Commonly, a middle ear infection will cause otorrhea. Also known as otitis media, this type of infection causes the middle ear to become inflamed, typically due to bacteria or a viral infection. It is very common in young children and generally causes a very thick and glue-like mucus to build up in the middle ear. The build up of the mucus can lead to a ruptured eardrum. If this happens, ear drainage will likely take place as the mucus will drain from the damaged eardrum and out of the ear.

Another cause of otorrhea can be due to an outer ear infection. The medical name for an outer infection is otitis externa. This type of infection is commonly known as swimmer's ear. With this type of infection, the outer portion of the ear becomes inflamed. Some of the most common causes of this type of inflammation is excessive water, a skin condition and hot weather, which may irritate the skin of the outer ear.


Otorrhea, which may be experienced in either of these types of ear infections, may result in a serous drainage or a purulent drainage. A serous drainage is usually a thin discharge that is predominantly clear in appearance. Some people may also experience a purulent drainage, which is often seen in the case of otitis externa. This type of drainage may produce an offensive smelling, thick, greenish or yellowish discharge. Other symptoms which may accompany an infection induced discharge may include a fever, severe ear pain, vertigo, fatigue and nausea.

There are some additional circumstances that may cause otorrhea. An obstruction in the ear canal can cause this to happen. This may potentially be done by placing any type of foreign object too far into the ear, where it may cause a significant amount of inflammation. In some incidences, ear discharge can happen in the event of a brain injury. If the brain is severely injured, cerebral fluid may drain through the ear and this will present a very urgent situation.

When otorrhea is due to an infection, antibiotics will typically be given to the patient. The doctor may also have to manually drain the ears with a suction device. If the discharge becomes a chronic problem, the patient may need to have special tubes put into the ears for proper drainage. When a foreign object is the cause of the discharge, a doctor will perform the necessary steps to remove it. If a serious injury, such as a brain injury, is the cause for the discharge, emergency treatment will be given under the discretion of a specialist such as a neurologist.


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