Audiologists are health care professionals who specialize in hearing and balance disorders. They work with patients of all ages. They educate their patients on the effects of noise on hearing and fit them with protective hearing devices, hearing aids, and assistive listening devices. They may also do research related to hearing loss, tinnitus, and balance system dysfunction.
Where do audiologists work?
Audiologists can work in a lot of places, including:
- Private practices
- Doctors’ offices, including ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors/otolaryngologists
- Colleges and universities
- Government settings
- Military settings
- Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals
- Rehabilitation centers and long-term and residential health care facilities
They provide services that help improve the quality of life of people with hearing and balance conditions.
What Do Audiologists Do?
Audiologists diagnose, manage, and treat hearing and balance problems in everyone from newborns to older people.
When you visit an audiologist, they may:
- Look in your ears to see your ear canals and eardrums.
- Test your hearing and interpret your results.
- Counsel you on your hearing health and explain your potential need for treatment or management.
- Test to see if you can benefit from a hearing aid or cochlear implant and then fit you for them.
- Recommend and help train you with other hearing assistive technology systems (HATS); for instance, devices that make phones or doorbells louder or that flash a light when your doorbell rings.
- Recommend and provide rehabilitation training, such as speech reading, auditory skill development, and language development.
- Test you for tinnitus (persistent ear ringing) and help manage any treatment that isn't medical.
- Counsel and educate you on ways you can adjust when you have hearing loss.
Types of ear doctors
Audiologists are primary health care professionals who test, diagnose, treat, and manage hearing loss and balance disorders. They usually train for a doctoral-level degree and pass tests for a license to practice. Since audiologists don’t go to medical school, they don't perform surgery or prescribe medications.
ENTs/otolaryngologists are medical doctors who diagnose and treat a wide range of issues affecting people’s ears, noses, and throats. ENTs may refer people to audiologists for hearing tests. These doctors can prescribe medicines and may perform surgeries.
Otologists/neurotologists are ENTs who have further specialized in the ear. They usually train for another 2 years to treat complex ear conditions or perform surgeries. For instance, if you need a cochlear implant, an otologist will likely do your surgery to place the internal part of the implant.
Audiologists may specialize in:
- Hearing aids
- Cochlear implants
- Auditory processing
Students who apply to an audiology program usually get their undergraduate degree in speech and hearing science, although they may also have their degree in other fields of science and technology, such as biology, physics, chemistry, or psychology.
Audiologists then usually train for a doctor of audiology (AuD), doctor of philosophy (PhD), or doctor of science (ScD) degree in hearing and balance sciences by going to a graduate program in audiology after they earn their bachelor's degree. Earning an AuD, PhD, or ScD usually requires at least 4 years of additional study after college. The AuD is the entry-level degree for professional practice in audiology, while the PhD or ScD are research-oriented degrees for people who are more interested in doing research than treating patients in a clinical setting. People who are interested in both research and treating patients may train for a combined AuD/PhD.
Audiologists must have a license to practice in the U.S., and some may also get a certificate from the American Board of Audiology. To be licensed to practice, audiologists usually need to complete:
- Externships to get practical experience working with clients, usually the last year they are in school for their AuD or PhD degree
- A clinical placement of 9-12 months (called a clinical practicum) after they graduate
- A national exam
- A state-specific licensing exam
- Continuing education requirements to renew their licenses every 3 years
According to the Student Academy of Audiology, the average salary for an audiologist can vary, depending on the state where they work, the setting where they work (for instance, in a clinic vs. a hospital), and how much experience they have. The median salary for a practicing audiologist in the U.S. is $78,950 per year, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 16% employment growth for audiologists between 2020 and 2030. The Student Academy of Audiology runs a compensation and benefits survey every year to help people who are interested in a career in audiology research their potential earnings and benefits.
When to See an Audiologist
You should see an audiologist if you suspect that you have hearing loss. Common signs of hearing loss include:
- You have to ask people around you to repeat what they say.
- You feel as if people around you are mumbling or not speaking clearly.
- You have a hard time hearing and understanding people when there's a lot of background noise.
- You often don't understand what people say and answer their questions inappropriately.
- You have ringing, hissing, or other noise in your head or ears when there's no external sound.
You should also see an audiologist if you have occasional or ongoing dizziness, vertigo, or other problems with your balance.
You may also want to have your hearing monitored regularly by an audiologist if you have a history of:
- Ongoing exposure to loud noises
- Ear infections or inner ear disease, such as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, herpes zoster oticus (shingles that affects your hearing), Meniere disease, purulent labyrinthitis (bacterial inner ear infection) or viral labyrinthitis, and vestibular schwannoma (a usually benign tumor on your auditory nerve)
- Taking medicines that cause hearing damage (known as ototoxicity), such as aminoglycoside and macrolide antibiotics, aspirin and some other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, cisplatin (a chemotherapy drug), quinine and other antimalarial drugs, and loop diuretics
- Tinnitus (ear ringing or other noises)
- Genetic hearing impairment
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Ear pain or pressure
- Ruptured eardrum
- Head injury
If you have ongoing trouble with your balance or dizziness, you should see your medical doctor first. You should go to the emergency room if you have dizziness or vertigo and any of the following:
- Sudden, severe headache
- Chest pains
- Trouble breathing
- Numbness, tingling, or paralysis of your arms and legs
- Double vision
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Slurred speech
- Stumbling or having a hard time walking
- Ongoing vomiting
- Any sudden change in your hearing
- Numbness or weakness in your face
What happens at your audiology appointment varies, depending on why you are seeing them. At your first appointment, your audiologist will likely:
- Ask about your medical history
- Ask about the symptoms that are related to your hearing or balance issue, including how long you've had the symptoms and if they come and go
- Look in your ears
- Test your hearing and balance
After your test results, your audiologist will talk with you about your hearing and any devices that may be able to help improve your hearing.
If your test shows that you have hearing loss, make sure you ask your audiologist about anything you don't understand. A few questions you may want to ask include:
- Why am I having trouble hearing?
- How bad is my hearing loss?
- Is my hearing loss temporary or permanent?
- Will I need hearing aids?
Audiologists are health care professionals who specialize in hearing and balance disorders. They usually train in a doctoral program for 4 years after college to earn an AuD, PhD, or ScD degree. They don't prescribe medicines or do surgery, but they can help test you for hearing aids and other hearing assistive technology systems. If you think you have hearing loss, tinnitus, or balance issues, you may want to see an audiologist. They can offer many options to help you communicate better when you have hearing problems.