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What Is an Otolaryngologist?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

An otolaryngologist is a doctor who specializes in problems of the head and neck. Otolaryngology is a shortened form of the term otorhinolaryngology, which comes from Greek words for ear (oto), nose (rhino), and throat (laryn).

Otolaryngologists used to focus solely on problems of the ear, nose, and throat. You may still hear them called an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) or ENT doctors. Over the last 50 years, the specialty has expanded to include all structures of the head and neck except for the eyes and brain.

What Does an Otolaryngologist Do?

An otolaryngologist performs examinations, often using specialized equipment, to diagnose disorders and diseases of the head and neck. Depending on your symptoms, they may order additional testing such as bloodwork, a sleep study, or a swallow study. They can also do comprehensive hearing, balance, or allergy testing at their office.

They’re both doctors and surgeons, so they can provide treatment by prescribing medicine or performing a procedure or surgery.

Education and Training

Otolaryngologists are highly specialized. Their education takes at least 13 years and includes: 

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Specialty training (at least 5 years)
  • Both written and oral examinations to become board certified

What Conditions Does an Otolaryngologist Treat?

Otolaryngologists provide treatment for benign tumors and cancers of the head and neck, except for eye and brain cancers. They treat tonsil and adenoid problems, chronic reflux (stomach acid flowing into your esophagus), and disorders related to thyroid, nerve, voice, swallowing, and sleep. They perform reconstructive plastic surgery after facial injury or surgery and cosmetic plastic surgeries of the face and neck. Some of the more common problems they treat are:

Hearing loss

Otolaryngologists diagnose hearing loss and provide treatment or symptom management. In-office procedures include removing ear wax blockages and prescribing and maintaining hearing aids. Otolaryngologists perform surgeries such as stapedectomy, the removal of a small bone in the ear if it isn’t working properly, and the placement of cochlear implants, electronic devices that allow you to hear.

Balance disorders
Some balance issues result from problems inside your ear. An otolaryngologist does tests to find the cause of the problem and provides treatment. They can also refer you to a vestibular therapist, who can help improve your symptoms.

Ear infections

Many ear infections get better on their own within 72 hours. An otolaryngologist can prescribe antibiotics for infections that don’t clear quickly. If fluid in your middle ear is causing frequent ear infections or hearing loss, they may perform a painless surgery to place tiny ear tubes in your eardrums. This allows fluid to drain from your ears, reducing the number of ear infections and restoring hearing.

Tinnitus

This symptom is a response from your brain to changes like ear or sinus infections. Tinnitus is usually described as ringing in the ears but can also sound like buzzing, roaring, or clicking. An otolaryngologist works to uncover the cause of the tinnitus and treat it or provide management techniques and devices.

Nose and Sinus Disorders

Loss of smell can result from a number of problems such as sinusitis, polyps (abnormal tissue growth), and allergies. Sinusitis is a chronic disease that causes trouble breathing through your nose, drainage, and frequent sinus infections. An otolaryngologist will prescribe medications that can help. If the problem persists, they can do endoscopic sinus surgery to remove blockages. 

Polyps are small, noncancerous growths inside the nose or sinuses that can block airways and keep your sinuses from draining. An otolaryngologist may surgically remove polyps and keep watch to help prevent their return. Allergies can play a huge role in problems with your nose and sinuses. Otolaryngologists provide allergy testing and prescribe oral medications or allergy shots if needed.

Reasons to See an Otolaryngologist

You’ll generally see your primary care doctor first and be referred to an otolaryngologist. Check with your insurance provider about going directly to an otolaryngologist if you or your child have any of the following symptoms:

  • Frequent ear or tonsil infections
  • Sudden hearing loss
  • Hoarseness that lasts longer than two weeks
  • Chronic sore throat or cough
  • A lump on the neck
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

Sources:

American Board of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery

History of Medicine: “Otorhinolaryngology.”

Mayo Clinic: "Hearing Loss."

Northwest Community Healthcare: “Children, Ear Infections, and ENT Specialists.”

Oregon Health and Science University: “Common Disorders of the Nose and Sinuses.”

University of California, Irvine: “An Overview of Balance Problems.”

University of Michigan: “Tinnitus.”

University of South Florida: “What is Otolaryngology?”

University of Utah: “Ear, Nose, & Throat (ENT) Doctor or Primary Care Physician: When to See an ENT.”

Vestibular Disorders Association: “Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT).”

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