What Is an Otoscope?

An otoscope is a handheld tool used by a healthcare provider to look inside the ear during an ear exam, or otoscopy. A provider may conduct an ear exam during a routine wellness visit or on people experiencing symptoms. During an otoscopy, a provider will check for signs of infection, injury, or other ear problems.

This article will describe what an otoscope is and how it is used during an otoscopy.

A doctor examines a patient's ear with an otoscope.

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What Is an Otoscope?

An otoscope is a handheld tool with a light and a magnifying lens that allows a healthcare provider a better look inside the ear. It has a viewing piece shaped like a funnel with a pointed end called a speculum, which enters the ear canal during an exam.

A pneumatic otoscope is a specific type of otoscope with a rubber bulb that, when squeezed, provides a puff of air to the ear canal. The air inside the ear canal allows the healthcare provider to observe the movement of the eardrum.

More recently, some healthcare providers have used video otoscopes that can transmit images from inside the ear to a larger screen.

What Is an Otoscopy?

Otoscopy is the formal name for an ear examination. Although the ear is a small part of the body, it consists of many parts.

  • The external ear contains the external auditory canal, a tube connecting the outer part of the ear to the middle ear.
  • The eardrum, or tympanic membrane, separates the outer ear from the middle ear.
  • The middle ear, or tympanic cavity, contains the eustachian tube.
  • The eustachian tube connects the middle of the ear to the ear to the back of the nose.
  • The inner ear has small parts that are responsible for hearing and balance.

There are several reasons you may get an otoscopy:

  • For a routine physical
  • To check for an ear infection
  • To find out the cause of ear symptoms, like an earache or feeling of fullness
  • To screen for hearing loss
  • To examine for excess wax in the ear canal
  • To check for an object blocking the ear canal

Role of the Otoscope During an Ear Examination

The otoscope is the primary tool used during an ear examination. It is often used by primary health providers, audiologists, and otolaryngologists (also called ear, nose, and throat doctors, or ENTs).

An adult will typically sit upright during an ear exam, and a young child will lie down with their head turned to the side. The healthcare provider will use one hand to place the otoscope in the ear canal and the other hand to pull the outer ear up and back for a better view inside the ear.

During the exam of a healthy eardrum, the healthcare provider may notice:

  • A white or light gray eardrum
  • Slight movement of the eardrum when a puff of air is applied
  • Tiny, visible bones in the middle ear
  • A small amount of wax

During the exam of an eardrum that may have a problem, the healthcare provider may notice:

  • A red, swollen, or tender ear canal with or without pus
  • A red or bulging eardrum
  • Pain caused by pulling or touching the outer ear
  • No movement in the eardrum when a puff of air is applied

An otoscopy is usually painless, although if you have an ear infection, it may cause some discomfort. A provider usually will stop the exam if the pain worsens.

An otoscopy cannot detect all ear problems, so your provider may recommend additional ear exams or hearing tests if they suspect a more severe problem.

There is a risk of bacteria spreading from otoscope use with one patient to another patient. Regular cleaning of otoscope heads by medical staff can reduce the risk of infections.

Using an Otoscope for At-Home Exams

Otoscopes are available for home use. A healthcare provider may teach the parents of children with frequent earaches and ear infections, for example, how to perform at-home ear examinations. Here are some tips for completing at-home ear examinations:

  • Look into the otoscope before moving it forward.
  • Angle the viewing piece tip toward the nose to see the ear canal better.
  • Gently move the otoscope to view the ear canal walls and eardrum.
  • Stop the exam if the person you're examining feels increased pain.

Make sure to see a healthcare provider if you or someone in your home has the following symptoms:

Summary

An otoscope is an instrument used to examine the ear during an otoscopy (ear exam) to check for blockages in the ear, an ear infection, or wax buildup. Although a healthcare provider is usually the person who performs an otoscopy, some people buy an otoscope for home use if they have a child with frequent ear infections. See a healthcare provider if you or your child is experiencing severe pain, dizziness, or a fever discharge from the ears.

A Word From Verywell

Ear exams are important to check your overall health and to diagnose ear problems. If you have questions about your ear health, you should share them with your healthcare provider.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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