Can I Check My Child for Ear Infection at Home?

If your child gets ear infections often, you may wonder if you could save time and money by checking her for one at home. You might be able to, but you shouldn’t if there’s any pus or blood coming from the ear or if the skin around the ear hole is swollen. If that’s the case, call your child’s doctor.

If you do decide to check for an ear infection at home, be sure to talk with the doctor first to make sure it’s OK and to get guidance on the best instrument to buy and how to use it.

What Is an Otoscope?

It’s an instrument doctors use to see inside the ear. You don't have to be a doctor to buy or use one, but it’s not as simple as just putting it into your child’s ear and looking around.

The otoscope comes with several pointed tips, called specula. Choose one that’s slightly smaller than the opening of your child's ear. If the ear hole is too small for the smallest tip, don’t try to check for an infection at home.

Clean the speculum, unless you’re using disposable ones, and fit it to the viewing end of the otoscope. Turn on the instrument's light.

If your child is older than 12 months, pull the outer ear gently up and back. (If she's younger than 12 months, pull the outer ear gently straight back.) This will straighten the ear canal and make it easier to see inside.

Hold the otoscope at the handle with your pinky finger outstretched. When the instrument is in the ear canal, your pinky should rest on your child's cheek. This will keep it from going too far inside her ear canal and possibly hurting her.

Next, slowly put the speculum into your child's ear while looking into the viewing end of the otoscope. The ear canal is sensitive, so don’t put pressure on the instrument or push it too far.

Move the otoscope and the ear very gently until you can see the eardrum. Angle the viewing piece slightly toward your child's nose, so it follows the normal angle of the ear canal.

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Two important things to keep in mind:

  • The ear is very sensitive, so don't be rough. Children tend to wriggle or turn their heads to see what's going on, so be careful not to hurt the ear.
  • Tell your child what you’re doing each step of the way. Ask her to tell you if it hurts so you can take the otoscope out right away.
  • Because the ear canal isn’t straight, you’ll probably have to move the outer ear and the otoscope a few times to get it lined up and see inside. This will get easier with practice. You may want to try on a healthy adult first.

Signs of Infection

Here are some things to look for:

  • A red, bulging eardrum
  • Clear, yellow, or greenish fluid behind the eardrum. There may also be some blood.
  • Earwax buildup
  • A hole in the eardrum (perforated eardrum)

If you notice any of these, or aren’t sure, call your child’s doctor. Home otoscopes often don't have the picture quality of otoscopes used by professionals.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on January 29, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders: "Ear Infections in Children." 

Department of Otorhinolaryngology, UT Health: "Online Ear Disease Photo Book."

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