Why Do I Need an Ear Exam?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on May 29, 2023
3 min read

There are many reasons you might need an ear exam. You may get one as part of a routine checkup. Or your doctor may recommend one if they think there may be a problem with one of both of your ears, like if you:

  • Have pain in or around your ear, especially severe or sharp pain, or discomfort that lasts more than a day or two
  • Notice pus, discharge, or blood coming out of your ear
  • Worry that something’s stuck in your ear
  • Have trouble hearing

Think your hearing might not be as good as it used to be

First, your doctor will examine the outside of your ear. Then they’ll use something called an otoscope to look inside. It's a handheld tool with a light and a magnifying lens that lets your doctor see into your ear canal and get a view of your eardrum.

Your doctor may also use a pneumatic otoscope, which has a rubber bulb attached to it to send a puff of air into your ear canal. This can help your doctor see what your eardrum looks like and how it moves when you have pressure (air) in your ear canal. It also lets your doctor see if there’s a problem with the tube that connects your middle ear to the back of your throat (your Eustachian tube), or if there’s fluid behind your eardrum.

When your doctor is using either otoscope, they'll gently pull the outside of your ear back and slightly up. This straightens your ear canal and lets your doctor put the otoscope in your ear without irritating it.

Most of the time, ear exams are painless. If you have a severe ear infection or injury to your ear, you may have some discomfort. Your doctor will try to make you comfortable. 

Even so, it’s important to sit still during an ear exam. Sudden moves can cause pain. They could also damage your ear. Can an ear infection cause hearing loss? Learn more.

Your primary care doctor should be able to treat many ear problems such as infections. If you have a more serious problem, like chronic ear infections or tinnitus (constant ringing in your ears), your doctor may have you see a specialist called an otolaryngologist. They're sometimes called ENTs because they treat conditions of the ear (E), nose (N), and throat (T).

If you haven’t had a hearing test since you were in school, your doctor may suggest one as part of your ear exam. (It’s good to have your hearing tested at least once as an adult.) Your doctor may do the test themselves or recommend that you see a specialist called an audiologist.

There are many different kinds of hearing tests. Chances are, your doctor or specialist will perform several of them. Most will involve you responding to a series of tones or words.

Hearing tests are painless.

Depending on the results of your test, your doctor or specialist may recommend a follow-up evaluation. If you have hearing loss or other problems with your hearing, they might also recommend medication, hearing aids, or surgery. 

See what to expect from a hearing aid test.