What Is Otolaryngology?

Otolaryngology is a medical specialty for physicians who treat diseases and conditions that affect the ear, nose, and throat (ENT). Otolaryngologists (ENT doctors) are also trained as surgical specialists to perform surgery on the delicate tissues and interconnected systems within the head and neck.

However, ENT specialists typically specialize in chronic or critical ear, nose, and throat problems. For minor ENT issues, it’s better to visit your primary care physician or local urgent care clinic rather than seek out an ENT specialist.

What Do ENT Doctors Treat?

Common ENT Problems

As surgical specialists, otolaryngologists (ENT doctors) treat a wide variety of conditions for the following body parts: 

Acute vs. Chronic (Recurring) ENT Conditions

Learning the differences between acute and chronic ENT conditions will help you determine when it’s best to see a primary care physician or an ENT specialist. Acute conditions come on suddenly or occur infrequently, such as a single instance of strep throat or a one-time ear infection. However, lumps that do not go away or ear infections that resolve and come back repeatedly over time are considered chronic or recurring.

If an acute condition becomes chronic or recurring, you should talk to your primary care doctor about getting a referral for an ENT specialist.

When to See an ENT Specialist

You will need the help of an ENT specialist for the following health problems:

  • Sudden hearing loss or sudden changes in hearing
  • Difficulty breathing or a high-pitched wheezing sound when you breathe caused by a blockage in the larynx (voice box) or trachea (windpipe)
  • Dizziness that is accompanied by hearing loss or sudden hearing changes
  • Growing lumps, masses, or soft tissue infections in the face and neck area that do not get better after taking antibiotics
  • Chronic or recurring infections that affect the ears, nose, and throat, such as strep throat, ear infections, and sinus infections
  • ENT conditions that impact your ability to sleep or cause sleep apnea (breathing repeatedly starts and stops in your sleep)
  • Hoarseness that hasn’t gone away after two or more weeks
  • Sore throats, ear infections, or colds that haven’t resolved after three to four weeks
  • ENT, head, or neck conditions that require a biopsy or endoscopy for diagnosis or surgery

Some of these symptoms can also be an indication of a serious medical condition. If you experience any of the following, you should seek immediate care at the nearest emergency room:

  • A face or neck lump or abscess (swollen area filled with pus) that is growing rapidly or uncontrollably
  • Dizziness that is accompanied by:
    • chest pain,
    • difficulty breathing,
    • numbness or paralysis in the arms or legs,
    • confusion,
    • seizures,
    • vomiting, or
    • facial numbness

When to See a Primary Care Doctor

Keep in mind that not every issue with your ears, nose, or throat requires an ENT specialist. In fact, visiting a specialist for a condition that your primary care physician could easily treat can cost you more and make it harder for patients that do need an otolaryngologist to get an appointment. 

Primary care doctors have the training, diagnostic tools, and tests available to help with many conditions of the ears, nose, and throat, including: 

  • Acute sore throats (less than four weeks since it started)
  • Acute sinus infection or cold (less than three weeks since it started)
  • Acute nasal obstruction (less than three weeks since it started)
  • Acute hoarseness (less than two weeks since it started)
  • Sore throat diagnosis and treatment
  • Coughs and colds
  • Allergies
  • Lesions or sores in your mouth that heal within a few weeks
  • Dizziness with no associated ear pain or symptoms
  • Ear pain with no accompanying hearing loss

What to Expect at Your First ENT Appointment

At your first appointment, your ENT doctor will review your medical history and discuss any specific symptoms or conditions you are experiencing. Please bring a full list of the medications you are taking (including over-the-counter medications, vitamins, supplements, and herbal products), along with dosage amounts and frequency, to review with your specialist.

He or she will perform a physical and visual examination to check for common ENT problems, which may include looking in your nose, ears, and throat with an instrument called an otoscope. Your doctor may also examine your face, head, and neck. 

Depending on your diagnosis, your ENT doctor may: 

  • Recommend further testing or diagnostic procedures such as a biopsy (tissue removal) or endoscopy (a nonsurgical procedure used to examine a person’s esophagus, stomach, and intenstines) to get more information,
  • Prescribe antibiotics or other medications to treat your condition, or
  • Discuss options for surgery or other interventions.

Female doctor performing an ear exam on a patient

Do I Need a Referral to See an ENT Specialist?

You do not need a referral to see one of our otolaryngologists. However, we highly recommend that you first schedule a visit with a primary care doctor, who can diagnose and treat many ear, nose, and throat conditions. He or she will also determine when you need the help of an ENT doctor and provide a referral.

Your insurance carrier may also require you to get an ENT referral from your primary care doctor in order to have your treatments covered. Before you visit one of our ENT specialists, ask your insurance provider about what is covered or required under your policy.

Our ENT doctors offer specialized care, so getting treatment at a primary care clinic or urgent care for minor ENT issues will allow our specialists to see patients who need them the most.