An ear examination is when your doctor looks inside your ear using an instrument called an otoscope.
How the test is performed
The health care provider may dim the lights in the room.
A young child will be asked to lie on his or her back with the head turned to the side, or the child's head may rest against an adult's chest.
Older children and adults may sit with the head tilted toward the shoulder opposite the ear being examined.
The health care provider will gently pull up, back, or forward on the ear to straighten the ear canal. Then, the tip of the otoscope will be placed gently into your ear. A light beam shines through the otoscope into the ear canal. The health care provider will carefully move the scope in different directions to see the inside of the ear and eardrum. Sometimes, this view may be blocked by earwax.
The otoscope may have a plastic bulb on it, which delivers a tiny puff of air into the outer ear canal when pressed. This is done to see how the eardrum moves. Decreased movement can mean that there is fluid in the middle ear.
How to prepare for the test
No preparation is needed for this test.
How the test will feel
If there is an ear infection, there may be some discomfort or pain. The health care provider will stop the test if the pain gets worse.
Examining the ear also helps the health care provider see if treatment for an ear problem is working.
Everyone's ear canal differs in size, shape, and color. Normally, the canal is skin-colored and has small hairs. Yellowish-brown earwax may be present. The eardrum is a light-gray color or a shiny pearly-white. Light should reflect off the eardrum surface.
What abnormal results mean
Ear infections are a common problem, especially with small children. A dull or absent light reflex from the eardrum may be a sign of a middle ear infection or fluid. The eardrum may be red and bulging if there is an infection. Amber liquid or bubbles behind the eardrum are often seen if fluid collects in the middle ear.
An external ear infection may be present if the ear canal is red, tender, swollen, painful when wiggling or pulling on the outer ear, or if the canal is filled with yellowish-green pus.
Additional conditions under which the test may be performed:
If the instrument used to look inside the ear is not cleaned properly, an infection can be spread from one ear to the other.
Not all ear problems can be detected by looking through an otoscope. Additional ear and hearing tests may be needed.
Otoscopes sold for at-home use are lower quality than the ones used at the doctor's office. Parents may not be able to recognize some of the subtle signs of an ear problem. If there are symptoms of severe ear pain, hearing loss, dizziness, fever, ringing in the ears, or ear discharge or bleeding, see a health care provider.
Murr AH. Approach to the patient with nose, sinus, and ear disorders. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders; 2007:chap 452.
Couch ME. History, physical examination, and the preoperative evaluation. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund VJ, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. 5th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 8.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.