Ear examination

During an ear examination, your health care provider will look inside your ear using an instrument called an otoscope.

An ear exam may be done for various reasons, such as:

  • To find the cause of ear pain, a feeling of pressure or fullness in the ear or hearing loss.
  • If your doctor suspects you have an ear infection, to find the location of the infection. The infection may just be in the external ear canal (otitis externa). Or it might be in the middle ear behind the eardrum (otitis media).
  • To check for objects, lumps or too much earwax.
  • If you've had a head injury. 
  • To see how the treatment for an ear problem is working.

How is an ear examination performed?

To examine the inside of your ear (the ear canal and the eardrum), your health care provider will use an instrument called an otoscope. 

  • An otoscope is a handheld tool with a light and a magnifying lens.
  • It has a removable plastic tip shaped like a cone that allows the doctor to look inside your ear. 
  • A pneumatic otoscope has a rubber bulb that your doctor can squeeze to give a puff of air into the ear canal.
  • The air helps the doctor to see how the eardrum moves.

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. 

The tip of the otoscope is gently placed into your ear and a light is shone into your ear canal and down to your eardrum. The otoscope is carefully rotated in different directions to see the inside of your ear and your eardrum.

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

What do the results mean?

The ear canal differs in size, shape, and colour from person to person. Normally, the ear canal is the colour of your skin and has small hairs. Yellowish-brown earwax may be present. The eardrum is a light grey or pearly white. Light should reflect off the eardrum surface.

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. Orange-coloured liquid or bubbles behind the eardrum are often seen if fluid collects in the middle ear.

Other tests

Not all ear problems can be detected by looking through an otoscope. Other ear and hearing tests may be needed. Read more about hearing tests in adults and infants.

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Last reviewed: 28 Mar 2017