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Ear Examination

How It Feels

The physical examination of the ear using an otoscope is usually painless. If you have an ear infection, inserting the otoscope into the ear canal may cause some pain or mild discomfort.

Risks

The pointed end of the otoscope can irritate the lining of the ear canal, but this can usually be avoided by inserting the otoscope slowly and carefully. If the otoscope does scrape the lining of the ear canal, this rarely causes bleeding or infection.

Results

An ear examination is a thorough evaluation of the ears camera.gif that is done to screen for ear problems, such as ear pain, discharge, lumps, or objects in the ear.

Results of an ear examination
Normal:
  • Ear canals vary in size, shape, and color.
  • The ear canal is skin-colored and lined with small hairs and usually some yellowish brown earwax.
  • The eardrum is normally pearly white or light gray, and you can see through it.
  • Also, one of the tiny bones in the middle ear can be seen.
  • The eardrum moves slightly when a puff of air is blown into the ear.
Abnormal:
  • Touching, wiggling, or pulling on your outer ear causes pain.
  • The ear canal is red, tender, swollen, or filled with yellowish green pus.
  • The eardrum is red and bulging or looks dull and slightly pulled inward (retracted).
  • Yellow, gray, or amber liquid or bubbles are seen behind the eardrum.
  • There is a hole in the eardrum (perforation) or whitish scars on the surface of the drum.
  • The eardrum does not move as it should when a puff of air is blown into the ear.

What Affects the Test

Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:

  • Earwax, dirt, or an object such as a bean or a bead hiding or blocking the eardrum (tympanic membrane) in the ear canal. Your doctor may need to clean the ear canal before examining the ear.
  • Crying. A small child who is upset or crying may have red eardrums. This redness may be confused with an ear infection.
  • The inability of some children to sit still during the examination.

What To Think About

  • Other types of tests may be used to examine the ear and evaluate hearing. These tests include:
    • Acoustic immittance testing (tympanometry and acoustic reflex testing). This 2-minute to 3-minute test measures how well the middle ear relays sound. The soft tip of a small instrument is inserted into the ear canal and adjusted to achieve a tight seal. Sound and air pressure are then directed toward the eardrum. The test is not painful, but slight changes in pressure may be felt or the tone may be heard.
    • Vestibular tests (falling and past-pointing tests). These tests can detect problems with areas of the inner ear that help control balance and coordination. During these tests, you will try to maintain your balance and coordination while moving your arms and legs in certain ways, standing on one foot, standing heel-to-toe, and performing other maneuvers with your eyes open and closed. Your health professional will make sure that you do not fall.
  • If your child has repeat ear infections, your doctor may suggest that you buy a simple otoscope that is available for home use. To learn more, see the topic Home Ear Examination.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: September 10, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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