Ear Bleeding: Common Causes and When to Contact a Doctor

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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Ear bleeding is ear drainage that contains blood. The discharge may also contain pus, wax, and other fluids. Although there are other possible causes, one of the most common causes of bleeding from the ear is a ruptured or perforated eardrum. Depending on the cause, people with ear bleeding may also experience a loss of hearing, dizziness, or a fever. 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.

Read on to learn more about the potential causes of ear bleeding, some other symptoms that might occur, and when to contact a doctor.

What are the causes of ear bleeding?

A person using a Q-tip in their ear
932251758 Tijana Stepic/EyeEm/Getty Images

Damage to any part of the ear can cause ear bleeding. Your ear has three main sections:

  • the outer ear, which includes the external ear and ear canal
  • the middle ear, which consists of the eardrum and three tiny bones called ossicles
  • the inner ear, which includes the nerve endings that detect sound waves

Below are some common causes of ear bleeding.

Ear infection

While ear infections are more common in children, adults can get them as well. These infections — especially middle ear infections — can be bacterial or viral and may follow an upper respiratory infection. Outer ear infections may also cause bleeding.

Ear infections can cause your eardrum to rupture. Having a ruptured or perforated eardrum means that the delicate eardrum, also called the tympanic membrane, has a tear or hole. When your eardrum is ruptured, you may experience a loss of hearing along with ear bleeding.

A ruptured eardrum is a cause for concern because the eardrum is a natural barrier to germs entering the middle and inner ear. While a ruptured eardrum can heal on its own within a few weeks, your doctor may want to monitor your ear for signs of infection.

To treat ear infections, doctors typically prescribe oral antibiotics or antibiotic ear drops. They may also recommend over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as acetaminophen, to help manage the pain. For people who experience recurring infections, doctors may recommend surgery to implant ear tubes.

Foreign object in the ear

Foreign objects penetrating the ear can cause bleeding. For example, putting a cotton swab too far into the ear can rupture your eardrum or damage the skin in the ear canal.

Treatment for this type of injury will include keeping objects out of the ear and keeping the ear clean to prevent infection.

Head injury

Ear bleeding may result from trauma to the head. These types of injuries can come from falls, blows to the head, or high velocity accidents such as car crashes. The bleeding may be due to skull fractures, ear canal lacerations, or damage to the veins and arteries in the ear area.

Although mild head injuries may resolve with rest and OTC pain medications, severe injuries may require hospitalization and surgery.

Barotrauma

Barotrauma, which is tissue damage resulting from rapid changes in ambient pressure, can also cause ear bleeding. While barotrauma most commonly affects people who dive, it can also affect people in any situation where the pressure outside of the body rapidly changes. These pressure changes can cause your tissues to become overstretched, which can result in a ruptured eardrum.

Treating barotrauma-related ear injuries may involve OTC pain medications or antibiotics if an infection is present. Inner ear trauma may require surgical correction.

Ear cancer

Although it is extremely rare, cancer can develop in the middle ear and cause bleeding. More often, skin cancer can affect the outer part of the ear.

Doctors may treat ear cancer with surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.

What are some potential complications of ear bleeding?

The complications of bleeding from the ear are related to the underlying cause. A ruptured eardrum can increase your chance of developing an ear infection. Ear infections that occur with a ruptured eardrum may sometimes spread to the bone behind the ear, resulting in a condition called mastoiditis.

Some people may also experience permanent hearing loss as a result of trauma or infections. A severe blow to the head can cause permanent brain damage and dislocation of the ossicles.

What other symptoms might occur with ear bleeding?

Depending on the underlying cause, you may experience other symptoms in addition to ear bleeding. These symptoms may include:

  • buzzing in the ear
  • earache
  • hearing loss
  • headache
  • a fever
  • facial weakness

When should I contact a doctor about ear bleeding?

Contact your doctor any time you experience ear bleeding. Although the cause may be mild, it is best to have a healthcare professional rule out any severe underlying health conditions.

In some cases, bleeding from the ear may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life threatening condition that requires immediate evaluation in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have any of these symptoms along with ear bleeding:

  • bloody discharge from the nose
  • a change in consciousness
  • dizziness
  • an inability to track movement with the eyes
  • irregular pupil size
  • lethargy
  • vomiting

Frequently asked questions

Here are a few other commonly asked questions about ear bleeding. Dr. Nicole Aaronson has reviewed the answers.

Is ear bleeding an emergency?

While the cause of ear bleeding may not always be serious, it is important to talk with your doctor if you experience it. They can help you determine if the cause is mild or needs additional medical attention. Ear bleeding resulting from certain conditions can cause severe complications without treatment.

Why does my ear bleed after cleaning it?

Damage to the ear canal or eardrum from items such as cotton swabs can cause ear bleeding. Avoid putting any objects into your ear, as this can cause damage and infection.

Summary

Ear bleeding, while commonly a symptom of a ruptured eardrum, can result from certain other conditions, such as ear infections or head injuries. Along with bleeding, you may experience dizziness, a loss of hearing, headache, or a fever.

Treatment for ear bleeding will depend on the underlying cause. Although mild cases may only require rest and pain management, your doctor may need to treat more serious conditions with prescription antibiotics or surgery. Without treatment, the causes of ear bleeding may lead to serious complications, such as permanent brain or hearing damage.

Talk with your doctor if you experience ear bleeding, as it could be a symptom of a severe condition. 

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 29
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