What Is an ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctor)?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on August 17, 2023
4 min read

An ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT) specializes in everything having to do with those parts of the body. They even perform operations. They're also called otolaryngologists.

Some historians think ear doctors are the oldest medical specialties in the U.S. It started in the 1800s when doctors realized that a person's ears, nose, and throat had delicately connected systems that required special knowledge.

What is the difference between an ENT and otolaryngologist?

A nose doctor, throat doctor, ENT, and otolaryngologist are different names for the same type of specialist. These terms may be used interchangeably because they all mean the same thing.

ENTs deal with anything that has to do with the head, neck, and ears in adults and children, including:

  • Hearing
  • Adenoids and tonsils
  • Thyroid
  • Sinuses
  • Larynx
  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Ear tubes
  • Ear surgeries
  • Cancers of the head, neck, and throat
  • Reconstructive and cosmetic surgery on the head and neck
  • Sleep apnea
  • Severe snoring
  • Lumps on your face or neck
  • Hoarseness or wheezing
  • Difficulty swallowing (dyspnea)
  • Allergies

ENTs must first get an undergraduate degree. It can be in any subject, but topics like biology or chemistry are useful for medical school.

Next, they must attend medical school for 4 years, followed by a 5-year residency. During this program, they learn about otolaryngology from more experienced doctors.

Finally, ENTs must pass the exam for their state to become a fully licensed doctor.

Some ENTs have 1-2 years of training to specialize further in areas like:

  • Neurology
  • Sleep medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Allergies
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Reconstructive surgery
  • Balance problems
  • Cancers of the head and neck
  • Vocal problems
  • Swallowing issues
  • Sinus issues

You may want to see an ENT if you have:

Long-term (chronic) throat, ear, or sinus issues

Ear infections are one of the most common reasons parents take kids to the doctor. ENTs usually treat them with antibiotics, but if the infections keep coming back, they may recommend surgery.

Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils. Again, doctors often treat it with antibiotics, but if it persists, they may recommend that you get your tonsils taken out.

Sinus problems that last more than 4 months are called chronic sinusitis. ENTs can help get to the bottom of the issue and treat the underlying problem.

Hearing loss

Hearing loss is normal as you age. But sudden hearing problems can be a sign of something more serious. Either way, an otolaryngologist will be able to figure out what's going on and help you get any treatments you need to hear better. If you need hearing aids, your ENT may send you to an audiologist to get fitted for them.

A lump in your neck

A lump in the neck that lasts more than 2 weeks could be a sign of mouth, throat, thyroid, or blood cancer. Cancers that start in these areas often spread to the lymph nodes in your throat first.

A lump is different from swollen lymph nodes, which can also be a sign of a serious illness but often happen due to common conditions like strep throat or an ear infection.

A child who is a heavy snorer

Snoring is common in adults but unusual in children. It may not be a sign of a serious problem, but it's best to talk to your pediatrician about whether they recommend seeing an ENT. It may be a sign of sleep apnea, which can lead to bedwetting or behavioral or academic problems from lack of sleep.

Whether you call them ear, nose, and throat doctors; ENTs; or otolaryngologists, these doctors specialize in those parts of your body, as well as the head and neck. If you have issues with your sinuses, allergies, sleep apnea, throat, lumps, or more, this is who to call. Your doctor may refer you to an ENT for anything from hearing loss to trouble swallowing.

  • When should you see an ENT for clogged ears?

If home remedies like over-the-counter medications and hot showers don't relieve the problem and you suspect it may be an ear infection or sinusitis, contact your doctor.

  • What are the symptoms of ear, nose, and throat infection?

Symptoms of an ear infection include pain and itching inside your ear. For a nose infection, you may feel stuffy, have a fever, and a headache. A throat infection may also lead to a fever and pain when you swallow.