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Evaluation of otorrhea (ear discharge) in children

Christopher G Strother, MD
Karin Sadow, MD
Section Editor
Stephen J Teach, MD, MPH
Deputy Editor
James F Wiley, II, MD, MPH


The evaluation of otorrhea in children is reviewed here. The approach to ear pain is discussed separately. (See "Evaluation of earache in children".)


Otorrhea means drainage of liquid from the ear. Otorrhea results from external ear canal pathology or middle ear disease with tympanic membrane perforation.


The table provides a list of etiologies for otorrhea in children (table 1). The history and physical examination will differentiate among most causes of otorrhea in children.

Life-threatening conditions — Otorrhea in the setting of a traumatized or immunocompromised patient may indicate a serious life-threatening condition.

Traumatic cerebrospinal fluid otorrhea — Cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) otorrhea is a serious sign in the setting of head trauma. If any ear discharge is noted after serious head trauma, particularly clear or bloody discharge, the patient should undergo evaluation for CSF otorrhea caused by a basilar temporal skull fracture. (See "Evaluation and management of middle ear trauma", section on 'Evaluation of ear or nose drainage' and "Skull fractures in children: Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and management", section on 'Basilar skull fractures'.)

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Aug 30, 2016.
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