Do you smell that? An offensive smelling odor from the ear is often assumed to be a sign of infection but there are a few other non-infectious causes that also need to be considered. The odor may be associated with an ear discharge, ear wax or something even more serious.
Causes of a Smelly Ear Odor
Excessive cleaning of the outer ear is more likely to result in offensive odors than the untouched ear canal. This is in stark contrast to other parts of the body where a foul odor is a sign of poor hygiene. By interfering with the microenvironment of the outer ear through cleaning with cotton wool cue tips, matchsticks or hair pins, the normal cleaning mechanism is disturbed. The chance of injury and infection is greatly increased (otitis externa / swimmer’s ear). Usually the discharge is odorless and clear but can progress as described below under infections.
Other factors that may also affect the ear canal and disrupt the cerumen is water in the ears (bathing, swimming pool), detergents, shampoos and allergic reactions usually due to these substances entering the outer ear.
An infection of the outer and middle ear (otitis externa and media) is the most common cause of a smelly ear discharge (otorrhea). A purulent discharge may appear white to pale yellow initially. Initially the discharge may be odorless but can progress into a foul smelling odor. With more chronic infections (like chronic otitis media) or discharge that is not easily expelled, the color may change to yellow to green. The reason for this is explained under Green Mucus. Necrotizing otitis externa is a more likely cause of a smelly ear discharge.
Most of these infections are due to bacteria although fungal infections (otomycosis) may also be responsible. Discharge in a fungal infection is usually not as pronounced and may sometimes present…