Hearing management

Updated 07 December 2017

What are the possible causes of foul-smelling ears?

A foul smelling discharge from your ear can be a very embarrassing problem. We look at the most common causes and what to do about it.

Despite your ears being situated close to your nose, smells originating from your ears are not easily noticeable to you yourself. It is often first noticed by a partner or a friend.

So what is causing such a bad smell in your ears? The following are the most common causes:

Excessive earwax

Earwax that is normally found in their ear canals can have a strange smell. It consists of oils produced by the ear canal, dead skin cells and trapped dust and dirt. It can even contain small insects! 

Normal earwax, due to its composition, may smell slightly but certainly not bad enough to be noticed. However, if your ears produce excessive amounts of earwax a foul smell may be noticed. In these instances, it may be useful to use ear drops to soften the wax.

Ear syringing is often used to clear the canal of excessive wax. Do not attempt the remove the wax with cotton buds or sharp objects – this often exacerbates the problem and may cause damage to the eardrum.

Ear infections

One of the most common causes of foul-smelling ears is an infection of either the external ear canal (otitis externa), or the middle ear (otitis media). With infections, smelly pus may be present. Depending on where the infection occurs, the discharge may be yellow to green in colour.

In the acute phase of both conditions there is usually significant pain. If the condition becomes chronic, the consistency, colour and amount of the discharge can change.

One should also be on the lookout for beauty and cleaning products (like shampoos and creams) that may cause a local allergic reaction, irritation and, eventually, infection in the ear canal or surrounding tissue.

When infections are the cause, you will most likely need antibiotics. In some cases your doctor will also take a swab to identify the organism causing the infection, which will help them to prescribe the correct antibiotic.

Read more: Device spots bacteria in ear

Foreign objects in the ear

Doctors have found strange things in people’s ears. Children like to put small objects in their ears – a small toy, organic material like peas, or even pieces of sponge. Parents often don’t know about this, and only suspect something might be lodged in their child’s ear when a smell or discharge is noticed.

If you suspect a foreign body in your child’s ear, do not try to remove it yourself. Your doctor will use special instruments to remove the lodged material. Attempting to remove it yourself may cause further problems.

Watch this clip to see how a foreign body is removed from the ear:


Cholesteatoma is a serious, but treatable condition that affects the middle ear. Abnormal skin growth behind the eardrum causes skin cells to be shed. This may cause a build up behind the eardrum. If not treated, a build-up can cause destruction of the middle ear and surrounding bone, causing hearing loss. Previous middle ear infections can lead to cholesteatoma formation. A scanty bad-smelling discharge is usually present.

Treating possible infections is important. An ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist will also do tests to evaluate the extent of the growth. Surgery is often needed to remove the growth to prevent complications like bone erosion and spreading infections that may cause meningitis, brain abscesses and hearing loss.

Watch this clip to learn more about Cholesteatoma:

Tumours and cancers of the ear

Cancers originating in the ear canal, middle ear, inner ear or surrounding bone and skin may cause breakdown of the skin due to necrosis and may also lead to secondary infections of ulcerated skin.
This may cause a foul-smelling discharge. Some people may also notice blood in the discharge.

Foul- smelling ear discharges should always be examined by your doctor to exclude infections, abnormal growths and foreign bodies.  If you or someone else can smell it, it should be looked at.

Read more:

Could weak bones cause sudden hearing loss?

Leaving childhood deafness untreated may be dangerous

Tinnitus: why the ringing in your ears may be so hard to treat


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Hearing Expert

Minette Lister graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Pathology (Audiology) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville in 2015. Thereafter, she completed her compulsory year of community service at Phoenix Assessment and Therapy Centre in Durban. In 2017, Minette started working for Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. She is passionate about working with children and adults to diagnose and manage hearing loss using state of the art technology. Minette offers hearing screening programmes for newborn and high-risk babies, as well as school-aged children, in order to decrease the incidence of late or unidentified hearing loss.

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