Overview

    Your doctor will perform an ear examination, or otoscopy, if you have an earache, an ear infection, hearing loss, ringing in your ears, or any other ear-related symptoms. The test can be used to diagnose an ear infection or to see if treatments for an ear condition are working. Ear infections are a very common problem, especially for small children.

    An ear exam may also be performed if you have had a head injury, chronic ear infections, or a punctured eardrum.

    How Is an Ear Examination Performed?

    Your doctor may dim the lights in the exam room in order to better see the inside of your ear with an otoscope. An otoscope is a hand-held light with a removable plastic tip shaped like a cone that allows the doctor to look inside your ear.

    You can purchase an otoscope to check your child’s ears at home if you think he or she may have an ear infection. If you see redness, swelling, fluid, or pus in your child’s ears, contact your doctor right away.

    Young children will be asked to lie on their backs with their heads turned to the side to allow the doctor to examine one ear at a time. Older children and adults can sit up, tilting their heads to the side to allow the doctor to examine each ear.

    Your doctor will gently pull up, down, forward, or back on your earlobe to straighten your ear canal. Then, he or she will place the tip of the otoscope into your ear and shine a light into your ear canal and down to your eardrum. Your doctor will carefully rotate the otoscope in different directions to see the inside of your ear and your eardrum.

    Your doctor may use a pneumatic otoscope (one with a plastic bulb on the end) to blow a small puff of air against your eardrum. Normally, this air will cause your eardrum to move. However, if you have an infection and fluid has built up behind your eardrum, your doctor will see little or no movement.

    If you have an ear infection, an ear exam may be slightly uncomfortable or painful. Your doctor will stop the test and remove the otoscope if the pain worsens.

    What Are the Risks Associated With an Ear Examination?

    There are very few risks associated with this test. If your doctor does not change out the tip of the otoscope or clean it properly after examining your ear, which is unlikely, an infection can be spread from one ear to the other.

    What Do the Test Results Mean?

    Normally, your ear canal is skin-colored and your eardrum is light gray or pearly white. Light should reflect off of a healthy eardrum. You may also have some yellow or brown earwax, which is not harmful. If your ear canal and eardrum appear healthy, you mostly likely do not have an ear infection.

    If your doctor identifies redness, swelling, amber liquid, or pus in your ear canal or behind your eardrum you most likely have an ear infection. If light does not reflect off of your eardrum, it is another indication that fluid may have collected behind the eardrum due to an infection.