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An ear exam is a thorough check of the ears. It is done to screen for ear problems, such as hearing loss, ear pain, discharge, lumps, or objects in the ear. An ear exam can find problems in the ear canal, eardrum, and middle ear. These problems may include infection, too much earwax, or an object like a bean or a bead.
During an ear exam, a tool called an otoscope is used to look at the outer ear canal and eardrum. An otoscope is a handheld tool with a light and a magnifying lens. It also has a funnel-shaped viewing piece with a narrow, pointed end called a speculum. 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.
An ear exam may be done:
It is important to sit very still during an ear exam. A young child should be lying down with his or her head turned to the side. Or the child may sit on an adult's lap with the child's head resting securely on the adult's chest. Older children and adults can sit with the head tilted slightly toward the opposite shoulder.
Your doctor may need to remove earwax in order to see the eardrum.
An ear exam can be done in a doctor's office, a school, or the workplace.
For an ear exam, the doctor uses a special tool called an otoscope to look into the ear canal and see the eardrum.
Your doctor will gently pull the ear back and slightly up to straighten the ear canal. For a baby under 12 months, the ear will be pulled downward and out to straighten the ear canal. The doctor will then insert the pointed end (speculum) of the otoscope into the ear and gently move the speculum through the middle of the ear canal to avoid irritating the canal lining. The doctor will look at each eardrum (tympanic membrane).
Using a pneumatic otoscope lets your doctor see what the eardrum looks like. It also shows how well the eardrum moves when the pressure inside the ear canal changes. It helps the doctor see if there is a problem with the eustachian tube or fluid behind the eardrum (otitis media with effusion). A normal eardrum will flex inward and outward in response to the changes in pressure.
The physical exam of the ear using an otoscope usually isn't painful. If you have an ear infection, putting the otoscope into the ear canal may cause mild pain.
The pointed end of the otoscope can irritate the lining of the ear canal. This can often be avoided by putting the otoscope in slowly and carefully. If the otoscope does scrape the lining of the ear canal, it could cause bleeding or infection, but this is rare.
An ear exam is a thorough check of the ears. It is done to look for ear problems, such as ear pain, discharge, lumps, or objects in the ear.
You may not be able to have the test, or the results may not be helpful, if:
Other Works Consulted
Committee on Practice and Ambulatory Medicine, Bright Futures Periodicity Schedule Workgroup (2014). 2014 recommendations for pediatric preventive health care. Pediatrics, published online February 24, 2014. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013–4096. Accessed March 7, 2014.
Current as of: July 29, 2019
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Susan C. Kim, MD - PediatricsE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineCharles M. Myer III, MD - Pediatrics, Otolaryngology
Current as of: July 29, 2019
Susan C. Kim, MD - Pediatrics & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Charles M. Myer III, MD - Pediatrics, Otolaryngology
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