Home Otoscopes


My son has had ear infection after ear infection. It’s very hard for me to miss work to take him to the doctor. Is there any way I can determine myself that he has an ear infection? Should I buy a home otoscope and examine my son’s ears myself? If I do buy a home otoscope, how can I learn to distinguish between a normal ear and an infected ear?
San Mateo, California

Dr. Greene's Answer

Clearly, I am in favor of parents having as much information as possible about their children’s health (or else I wouldn’t be providing this service!). Still, home otoscopes are a mixed blessing. With training, a bright red, bulging eardrum is difficult to miss, but many significant ear infections are much less clear-cut — even with top-of-the-line instruments. You can obtain a home otoscope from a drug store or medical supply store for only about thirty dollars, but home otoscopes are of dramatically lower quality than the instruments your doctor uses.

It will still be important for your child’s physician to have an ongoing view of your child’s eardrums. The home otoscope may buy you some leeway on timing (allowing you to arrange your son’s office visits around your work schedule if necessary). This decision would be excellent to discuss with your physician, to see how it fits with his or her management strategy for your child.

I’m the kind of person who would probably buy one if I were a parent (a non-doctor parent, I mean). Still, although some parents I know love their home otoscopes, most feel that they would have done just as well without.

Most home otoscopes come with a few pictures that can give you a general idea of what to look for. The best idea, though, is to learn to use your otoscope in conjunction with regular doctor visits. Look in your child’s ears just before the doctor does and describe what you see. Then ask the doctor to describe your child’s eardrums to you. Look again, and try to cement the appearance in your memory. You will learn a little more each time, whether there is an infection present or not.

You will be at a disadvantage compared to your physician, since the optics and the lighting of physician otoscopes are far superior (they are also far more expensive!). Also, the home otoscope features no way to assess eardrum mobility, often a critical part of an ear exam. Even with much practice, some kinds of ear infections will be impossible to see, including many of those that might lead to PE tube surgery. Still, you can expect to eventually become fairly proficient at recognizing your child’s eardrums in a few different situations.

Frequent visits to your pediatrician can be quite inconvenient. Unfortunately children with frequent ear infections need to be seen by a skilled professional before a treatment plan can be established. Right now that may put a real burden on your family, but fortunately most children (and hopefully your son is one of them) don’t require this kind of attention for very long.

Medical Review on: November 07, 2008
About the Author
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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Recent Comments

My Granddaughter is non-verbal diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. She had tubes but they are no longer in her ears. She now continues to have ear infections and I think my daughter would be wise to have an Otoscope at home to check herself for any ear infections because they come up so fast and my granddaughter can’t verbally tell her mom that her ear (ears) are hurting. My daughter is safe before sorry and of course is constantly seeing the Pediatrician not knowing what to look for. At least if she’s comfortable using the Otoscope and can see if an ear infection is starting she will be able to identify it and seek medical attention for it. Do you agree?

The more information parents have about their kids the better, right? But I think otoscopes can be hard for parents to use. Most are not parent friendly. There are some other devices to check for ear infections that are easier to use, though. One is called CellScope and another is EarCheck.

Hello Doctor,

i really wanted to know under what indications are pressure equalizer tubes inserted into the ear?

Here’s a great piece Dr. Greene wrote on the topic –> Ear Tubes

Took my son to the doctor. Found out he stuck something green in his ear. They gave me ear drops to put in his ear then they said flush with warm water. I want to buy a otoscope so I can make sure I do it right. Where could I buy one?