What Is an Otolaryngologist?
An otolaryngologist treats issues in your ears, nose, or throat, as well as related areas in your head and neck. If you have a health problem with your head or neck, your doctor might recommend that you see this kind of specialist. They're called ear, nose, and throat doctors or ENTs for short.
In the 19th century, doctors figured out that the ears, nose, and throat are closely connected by a system of tubes and passages. They made special tools to take a closer look at those areas and came up with ways to treat problems. A new medical specialty was born.
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.
Otolaryngologist 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 by the American Board of Otolaryngology
Some otolaryngologists also get 1 or 2 years of training in a subspecialty:
- Allergy: These doctors treat environmental allergies (like pollen or pet dander) with medicine or a series of shots called immunology. They also can help you find out if you have a food allergy.
- Facial and reconstructive surgery: These doctors do cosmetic surgery like face lifts and nose jobs. They also help people whose looks have been changed by an accident or who were born with issues that need to be fixed.
- Head and neck: If you have a tumor in your nose, sinuses, mouth, throat, voice box, or upper esophagus, this kind of specialist can help you.
- Laryngology: These doctors treat diseases and injuries that affect your voice box (larynx) and vocal cords. They also can help diagnose and treat swallowing problems.
- Otology and neurotology: If you have any kind of issue with your ears, these specialists can help. They treat conditions like infections, hearing loss, dizziness, and ringing or buzzing in your ears (tinnitus).
- Pediatric ENT: Your child might not be able to tell their doctor what's bothering them. Pediatric ENTs are specially trained to treat youngsters, and they have tools and exam rooms designed to put kids at ease. Common problems include ear infections, tonsillitis, asthma, and allergies. Pediatric ENTs also care for children with birth defects of the head and neck. They also can help figure out if your child has a speech or language problem.
- Rhinology: These doctors focus on your nose and sinuses. They treat sinusitis, nose bleeds, loss of smell, stuffy nose, and unusual growths.
- Sleep medicine: Some ENTs specialize in sleep problems that involve your breathing, for instance, snoring or sleep apnea. Your doctor may order a sleep study to see if you have trouble breathing at times during the night.
Audiologist vs. otolaryngologist
An audiologist is a specialist who helps fit patients with hearing aids or other listening devices. Audiologists usually have Master's degrees or doctorates in audiology and not a medical degree like an otolaryngologist.
Which Conditions Do Otolaryngologists Treat?
ENTs can do surgery and treat many different medical conditions. Some of the common conditions they treat include:
Cancers of the head and neck
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 may allow you to hear better.
Some balance issues, like vertigo, 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.
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.
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.
Other conditions an ENT may treat include:
- Throat problems like acid reflux (or gastroesophageal reflux disease)
- Sleep trouble like snoring or obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), in which your airway is narrow or blocked and it interrupts your breathing while you sleep
- Some eye problems, like drooping lids
- Birth conditions like a cleft palate and cleft lip
Some areas of your head are treated by other kinds of doctors. For example, neurologists deal with problems with your brain or nervous system, and ophthalmologists care for your eyes and vision.
How Do I Find an Otolaryngologist?
Ask your doctor or go to the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery website to find one in your area. Look for one that specializes in your specific problem.
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 2 weeks
- Chronic sore throat or cough
- A lump on the neck
Common Otolaryngology Procedures
An otolaryngologist may perform the following procedures:
- Blepharoplasty, a surgery that removes drooping skin from above your eyelids
- Endoscopic sinus surgery, a minimally invasive surgery in which your doctor uses small tubes to restore normal sinus function
- Excision and biopsy, a procedure in which a tumor is removed, either partially or entirely
- Facial plastic surgery, including medical and cosmetic procedures like rhinoplasty (nose jobs), rhytidectomy (facelifts), or genioplasty (chin augmentation), sometimes performed for cosmetic reasons
- Myringotomy and pressure equalization tube placement, a procedure often performed on kids who have frequent, long-lasting ear infections that prevents fluid from filling up in their ears
- Neck dissection, a surgery to remove the lymph nodes from your neck, which is often performed to prevent mouth or throat cancers from spreading
- Septoplasty, a surgery that straightens the bones and cartilage between your nostrils if you have a deviated septum
- Surgery for snoring or OSA, a procedure to remove soft tissue from the throat to help people breathe more easily as they sleep
- Thyroid surgery, a surgery often performed to treat thyroid cancer where the thyroid gland is removed
- Tracheostomy, in which a tube is placed through the trachea—the windpipe in your neck—to help air get to the lungs
- Tonsillectomy, a surgical procedure in which your tonsils are removed
- Tympanoplasty, a procedure to repair ruptured eardrums