Otolaryngologist: Your Ear, Nose & Throat Specialist

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is an otolaryngologist?

An otolaryngologist (pronounced “ōtō-lar-en-gäl-e-jest”), or ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor, specializes in the medical and surgical care of the ears, nose and throat, and conditions affecting the head and neck. Otolaryngologists diagnose and treat a variety of health conditions including infections, cancer, and hearing and speech problems in both adults and children. An otolaryngologist typically:

  • Evaluates a patient's medical history and educates the patient about disease prevention

  • Performs exams of the ear, nose, throat, head and neck

  • Performs hearing and speech screenings

  • Orders and interprets laboratory and imaging tests and prescribes medications

  • Diagnoses and treats acute and chronic diseases and conditions that affect the ears, nose, throat, and head and neck, including sinus and ear infections, problems with the larynx (voice box), swallowing problems, and thyroid cancer

  • Performs surgical procedures on the ears, nose, throat, head and neck, such as myringotomy (ear tube surgery), tonsillectomy (tonsil removal), and rhinoplasty (cosmetic nose surgery)

Otolaryngologists may also be known by the following names: ear, nose and throat doctor; ENT; ENT doctor; ENT specialist; nose doctor; pediatric otolaryngologist; or general surgeon.

Who should see an otolaryngologist?

Any adult or child who is experiencing symptoms affecting the ears, nose, throat, head or neck should seek care from an otolaryngologist. This includes breathing and swallowing problems; hearing loss and speech difficulties; pain affecting the ear, nose or throat; and lumps or growths in the mouth or neck.

Otolaryngologists are trained in medicine and surgery and do not typically need to refer patients to other doctors when ear, nose, throat, head or neck surgery is needed.

When should you see an otolaryngologist?

Consider seeking care from an experienced otolaryngologist if you develop any of the following symptoms or conditions:

What conditions and diseases does an otolaryngologist treat?

An otolaryngologist treats conditions and diseases including:

  • Ear conditions including ear infections, hearing loss, balance disorders, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), cholesteatoma (abnormal skin growth in the ear), benign (noncancerous) growths, and congenital disorders and deformities of the outer and inner ear

  • Head and neck conditions including tumors of the parotid, thyroid and parathyroid glands; sialoadenitis (inflammation of the salivary gland); sleep apnea; and facial irregularities or deformities

  • Nose conditions including sinusitis, deviated septum, nosebleeds, nasal polyps, and loss of smell

  • Throat conditions including voice and swallowing disorders, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), tonsil and adenoid infections, and laryngeal cancer

What tests does an otolaryngologist perform or order?

An otolaryngologist can order or perform a wide variety of diagnostic and screening tests including:

  • Biopsies including removal of tissue from the thyroid, salivary glands, and other areas of the head and neck

  • General health tests including physical exam of the ear, nose, throat and neck; blood tests; bacteria cultures including group A Streptococcus; and allergy patch skin test

  • Hearing and speech evaluations including audiography, auditory brainstem response (ABR), and electrocochleography (ECOG)

  • Imaging tests including X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans

  • Scope tests including endoscopy (of the esophagus), otoscopy (of the ear), bronchoscopy (of the airways and lungs), and laryngoscopy (of the back of the throat and voice box)

  • Sleep studies including polysomnogram (PSG)

What procedures and treatments does an otolaryngologist perform or order?

Otolaryngologists order or perform various procedures and treatments to manage ear, nose, throat, and head and neck conditions. Otolaryngologists are trained in both medical and surgical treatments. Common procedures and treatments include:

  • Airway procedures including bronchoscopy and tracheotomy

  • Allergy treatments including education, medication, and immunotherapy (allergy shots)

  • Cancer treatments including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery

  • Cosmetic surgery including rhinoplasty (“nose job”), otoplasty (pinning the ears back), and surgical reconstruction

  • Ear surgery including cochlear implants, myringotomy (tiny incisions in the eardrum to relieve pressure, also called ear tube surgery), and tympanoplasty (reconstruction of the eardrum and middle ear)

  • Endocrine surgery including surgery of the thyroid gland and parathyroid glands

  • Esophagus and pharynx treatments including esophageal resection, pharyngectomy, and GERD treatments including medication, lifestyle changes, and surgery

  • Larynx (voice box) procedures including voice therapy, phonosurgery (surgery to correct voice or sound production), and laryngectomy (removal of the larynx)

  • Nasal treatments including medication, balloon sinuplasty, and septoplasty (straightening of the nasal septum)

  • Tongue and throat treatments including medication, tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy, and surgery to correct sleep apnea and snoring

Otolaryngologist training and certification

A doctor may practice otolaryngology without becoming board certified in the specialty. However, education, training, experience and certification are key elements in establishing a doctor’s level of competence. Board certification verifies that a doctor has completed residency training in the specialty and has passed competency examinations.

A board-certified otolaryngologist has earned certification in otolaryngology by the American Board of Otolaryngology or the American Osteopathic Board of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.

A board-certified otolaryngologist has:

  • Graduated from medical school or a college of osteopathic medicine, earning an MD or DO degree

  • Completed specialized residency training in otolaryngology

  • Passed a certification exam that validates the doctor’s specialized knowledge and skills in otolaryngology

To maintain board certification in otolaryngology, a doctor must participate in an ongoing certification program.
Doctors who earn board certification in otolaryngology can pursue certification in a subspecialty. Board certification requires additional training beyond the residency program, as well as passing an exam. The additional training is sometimes known as a fellowship

. Otolaryngology subspecialties include:

  • Neurotology focuses on the management of diseases and conditions affecting the inner ear, temporal bone, and skull base including tumors.

  • Otolaryngic allergy focuses on all aspects of otolaryngic allergy including immunology, allergy testing, and desensitization. This certification is available through the American Osteopathic Board of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.

  • Pediatric otolaryngology focuses on the care of infants and children with disorders that affect the ear, nose, throat, head and neck.

  • Plastic surgery within the head and neck or facial plastic surgery focuses on plastic and reconstructive procedures within the head, face and neck.

  • Sleep medicine focuses on the diagnosis and management of conditions that affect sleep, such as obstructive sleep apnea.

Although not formal, board-certified subspecialties, otolaryngologists may choose to focus in the following areas:
  • Allergies focuses on diagnosing, treating and managing patients with ear, nose and throat conditions related to allergies.

  • Audiology/Otology focuses on speech and hearing conditions.

  • Laryngology focuses on voice and swallowing disorders.

  • Rhinology focuses on diseases and conditions that affect the nose and sinuses.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 8
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. About Otolaryngology. American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. http://www.entnet.org/content/about-us.  
  2. Otolaryngology. American Board of Medical Specialists. http://www.certificationmatters.org/abms-member-boards/otolarynology.aspx.  
  3. Otolaryngology: Examination. Family Practice Notebook. http://www.fpnotebook.com/ENT/Exam/index.htm.  
  4. Protocol for Certification. American Osteopathic Board of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. http://www.aoboo.org/protocol-for-certification#content_top.