Bleeding From Ear

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Introduction

What is bleeding from the ear?

Bleeding from the ear is ear drainage that contains blood. The discharge may be a combination of pus, wax, fluid and blood. Although there are other possible causes, the most common cause of bleeding from the ear is a ruptured or perforated eardrum.

Your ear is divided into three sections: the outer ear (includes the external ear and ear canal), the middle ear (includes the eardrum and three tiny bones called ossicles), and the inner ear (includes the nerve endings that detect sound waves). Hearing occurs when sound waves travel through the outer ear and into the middle ear, where they cause vibration of the eardrum and ossicles. These vibrations are then transmitted through the inner ear, converted into electrical impulses, and translated by the brain as sound.

A ruptured or perforated eardrum means that the delicate eardrum, also known as the tympanic membrane, has a tear or hole. When your eardrum is ruptured you may experience a loss of hearing.

A ruptured eardrum is a cause for some concern because the eardrum is a natural barrier to germs entering the middle and inner ear. The good news is that a ruptured ear drum will heal on its own within a few weeks; however, precautions should be taken to avoid infection.

Bleeding from the ear can also be due to more serious conditions, such as a blow to the head or cancer of the ear canal. You should contact your doctor any time you experience bleeding from the ear. If you experience bloody discharge from the ear after a fall or a blow to the head, seek immediate medical care.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with bleeding from the ear?

Depending on the underlying cause, you may experience symptoms in addition to bloody discharge from the ear including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, bleeding from the ear may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, are exhibiting any of these life-threatening symptoms:

  • Bloody discharge from the nose

  • Change in consciousness

  • Dizziness

  • Inability to track movement with the eyes

  • Irregular pupil size

  • Lethargy (feeling sluggish)

  • Profuse bleeding from the ear

  • Vomiting

Causes

What causes bleeding from the ear?

Bleeding from the ear is usually due to a ruptured or perforated eardrum caused by a middle ear infection (otitis media). However, bleeding from the ear can also be caused by trauma to the head or the ear itself and other serious conditions. Be sure to tell your doctor about any other symptoms you are experiencing in order to address all possible causes.

Causes of a ruptured eardrum

Conditions that can lead to a ruptured eardrum include:

  • Abrupt changes in altitude (barotrauma)

  • Ear infection

  • Foreign object piercing the eardrum

  • Very loud noise

Serious or life-threatening causes of bleeding from the ear

In some cases, bleeding from the ear may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Cancer of the ear canal or middle ear

  • Head trauma, such as a blow to the head

  • Trauma to the ear canal or middle ear, such as from a hard slap or a foreign object

What are the potential complications of bleeding from the ear?

The complications of bleeding from the ear are related to the underlying cause. A ruptured eardrum is a cause for concern because it is a natural barrier to germs entering the middle and inner ear. Bleeding from the ear due to a blow to the head is cause for concern because a life-threatening complication from a blow to the head is permanent brain damage.

Over time, a ruptured eardrum can lead to potentially serious complications including:

  • Ear infection

  • Mastoiditis (spread of infection to the bone behind the ear)

  • Permanent hearing loss

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Oct 19
  1. Ear discharge, Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003042.htm.
  2. Ruptured eardrum, , Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001038.htm.
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