An otolaryngologist is a doctor that specializes in treating conditions that affect the ears, nose, and throat, as well as head and neck surgery. Specialists in otolaryngology (sometimes also called otorhinolaryngology) have been organized since 1896, making it the oldest medical specialty in the United States.
In addition to being a medical doctor, an otolaryngologist is also a surgeon. That means that they can perform operations to help treat conditions affecting the delicate tissues of the ears, nose, and throat.
Seeing an otolaryngologist isn’t uncommon. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were about
Otolaryngologists can treat a wide variety of conditions. Examples include chronic or fungal sinusitis, hearing loss, oropharyngeal cancer, and obstructive sleep apnea. Keep reading to learn more about this diverse medical specialty.
Is an ENT doctor the same as an otolaryngologist?
You may think that otolaryngologists sound suspiciously like ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors. That’s because they’re the same! Sometimes otolaryngologists are referred to as ENTs for short.
Now let’s take a look at the parts of the body an otolaryngologist focuses on.
Our ears are important not only for hearing, but also for maintaining our balance. Ear conditions that otolaryngologists can treat include:
- chronic ear infections
- ear pain
- impacted earwax
- dizziness or vertigo
- hearing loss
- ruptured eardrum
- inner ear conditions, such as Meniere’s disease
- ear tumors
- eustachian tube dysfunction
- middle ear fluid
- temporal bone fractures
We use our noses for breathing as well as to take in different smells from our surroundings. Nasal conditions that an otolaryngologist treats include:
- postnasal drip
- nasal polyps
- deviated septum
- smell disorders
- nasally obstructed breathing
The tissues of our throats help us to breathe, speak, and swallow. Throat conditions that an otolaryngologist treats include:
- sore throat
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- swallowing disorders
- vocal cord disorders
- conditions affecting the tonsils and adenoids
- throat tumors
- sleep apnea
- airway issues like subglottic stenosis
Head and neck
In addition to treating conditions of the ears, nose, and throat, otolaryngologists can also help with conditions impacting the head and neck. These can include:
- infections of the head or neck
- tumors in the head or neck
- facial injuries or deformities, including reconstructive or plastic surgery
- thyroid conditions
- congenital neck masses
- free flap reconstruction
Otolaryngologists receive years of education and training before they can practice, including:
- a 4-year college degree
- 4 years of medical school
- at least 5 years of specialty residency training in otolaryngology
After they’ve met these requirements, an otolaryngologist must then pass an examination given by the American Board of Otolaryngology in order to be certified to practice. This includes both a written and oral examination.
Some otolaryngologists may then choose to complete a fellowship in a subspeciality. These typically include another 1 to 2 years of training.
A rhinologist is a specialized type of otolaryngologist. These doctors focus on treating conditions that impact the nose and sinuses.
A rhinologist treats:
- complicated sinus disease involving multiple surgical revisions
- nasal masses
- conditions involving the skull base
- cases that are jointly treated with neurosurgeons
Like rhinology, laryngology is a specialized area of otolaryngology. A laryngologist focuses on conditions of the larynx (voice box), pharynx (back of the throat), and surrounding tissues.
These structures are all important for functions like breathing, speaking, and swallowing.
An audiologist focuses on conditions that affect your hearing and balance. Services that an audiologist can provide include:
- screening for hearing loss and other hearing disorders
- evaluating and diagnosing conditions that impact hearing and balance, such as hearing loss, tinnitus, and vertigo
- helping with the selection and fitting of hearing aids and other assistive devices
- providing strategies to help prevent hearing loss
Although this may sound similar to otolaryngology, audiology is different. Most audiologists receive a doctoral degree in audiology, called an AuD. They’re also certified by national and state associations.
There are also otolaryngologists that specialize in conditions of the ear. These can include both otologists or neurotologists.
It’s possible that an otolaryngologist may implement some holistic practices in the treatment of some conditions. When conventional medicine intersects with holistic practices, it’s called integrative medicine.
For example, acupuncture and herbal medicine have been
A 2012 study found that 17 percent of people who used holistic practices used them to address ear, nose, and throat conditions. However, many of these individuals didn’t tell their doctor about it.
If you’d like to integrate holistic practices into your treatment, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor. That’s because some holistic practices may not be appropriate for specific conditions, or they may lead to potentially harmful side effects.
A primary care doctor can often help with conditions that affect your ears, nose, and throat. This is typically the case if you’re experiencing an acute (short-term) condition like a sinus infection, ear infection, or sore throat.
However, sometimes it’s a good idea to see an otolaryngologist instead. Examples include:
- frequent instances of runny nose, nasal congestion, or sinus pressure
- recurring infections, including sinus infections, ear infections, or strep throat
- repeated episodes of dizziness or vertigo
- changes in hearing
- hoarseness or wheezing that doesn’t go away
- difficulty swallowing
- a noticeable lump or bump that develops in your face or neck and doesn’t go away or gets larger
- conditions that affect your ability to sleep, such as snoring or sleep apnea
There are a few ways to find an otolaryngologist.:
- Get a referral from your primary care doctor: Your primary care doctor can refer you to one or more otolaryngologists in your area.
- Ask a family member or friend: If someone close to you has been treated for an ear, nose, or throat condition, they may be able to recommend an otolaryngologist to you.
- Search for one: The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery has a search tool to help you find a certified otolaryngologist near you.
Otolaryngologists are doctors specializing in conditions of the ears, nose, and throat. They’re the same thing as an ENT doctor. In addition to diagnosing and treating these conditions, otolaryngologists can also perform surgery.
While some otolaryngologists have a more general practice, others are more specialized. Examples include rhinologists (nose), laryngologists (throat), and otologists (ears).
A primary care doctor can refer you to an otolaryngologist in your area.