What is an ENT doctor, and when should you see one?

Recurrent ear, nose or throat issues can make it difficult to participate fully in life. If you are experiencing symptoms that are affecting these areas, consider seeing an ENT doctor.

Each day we use our senses to navigate, enjoy and understand our world. An ENT doctor β€” or otolaryngologist β€” helps us take care of three out of those five senses.

What is an ENT doctor?

ENT stands for ear, nose and throat, three connected areas above the neckline that these physicians focus on. The specialty's official name is otolaryngology, and the specialist is an otolaryngologist, but for patients, it’s easier to use the common acronym ENT for ear, nose and throat.

Healthy ears, noses and throats allow us to take in the world around us and communicate what we perceive to others. The ears, nose and throat are also all connected to each other through an intricate web of tubes and passages. Keeping these body parts healthy is an important part of overall health.

About 27 million people see an ENT doctor each year. Most times, they go to the ENT after seeing their primary care provider. Your primary care doctor is usually the best person to see for an ear infection, sore throat or sinus headache, but if these problems keep coming back or don't respond to treatment, then your primary care may refer you to an ENT.

Top reasons for seeing an ENT

Some of the top reasons for seeing an ENT include ear infections, hearing problems, sinus and nasal problems, sore throat, tonsillitis, swelling in the neck and swallowing problems.

Recurrent ear infections

Parents quickly learn the telltale signs of an ear infection in their young children: tugging at the ear, crying and/or fever. It's important to know that recurring ear infections can do more than just ruin a good night's sleep β€” they can also lead to permanent hearing loss.

If you or your child experiences ear infections that recur or don't resolve with medical treatment, an ENT can help determine the underlying cause and treat it accordingly. Especially in children, this can mean inserting ear tubes to drain any fluid that may be harboring infections. Treating allergies and keeping up with vaccinations can also reduce the incidence of ear infections.

Hearing loss or tinnitus

Hearing issues can cut us off from our world, potentially leading to loneliness, isolation and serious health problems. Tinnitus (persistent ringing in the ears) affects one in five people and can interfere with relationships, focus and quality of life. Tinnitus and hearing loss can arise from long-term noise exposure, head trauma or other disorders.

ENTs can diagnose and treat hearing loss and work with audiologists to identify the most effective hearing aid for your condition. Tinnitus can be more difficult to treat. Options for improving symptoms include using background music or specially designed hearing aids to block the sounds.

Sinus infection or nasal problems

The nose is the visible portion of the nasal cavities, which include four pairs of sinuses behind the forehead, eyes and cheekbones. Because the sinuses drain into the throat, sinus disorders can be the root of many symptoms, including headaches, runny nose, post-nasal drip, hoarseness and sore throat.

If symptoms like these interrupt your life repeatedly or don't go away, an ENT may be able to help. Treatment for sinus and nasal problems may include addressing allergies or inflammation in the passages. Occasionally, surgery may be necessary.

Recurrent tonsillitis or swallowing problems

When you look in the mirror, open your mouth and say "ah," you'll notice your tonsils on either side of your throat and the uvula hanging in the middle. You can't see the adenoids, but they're back there too. Other parts of the throat include the hard and soft palate and the tongue. Disorders of the throat, which can be caused by infection, acid reflux, tumors or allergies, can affect a person's ability to speak or swallow.

Signs that you should see a doctor for a disorder of the throat include severe sore throat, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, swelling, blood in the saliva and difficulty talking. ENT doctors can help diagnose and treat disorders that may cause these symptoms.

Snoring

Occasional snoring is usually normal, but persistent or loud snoring can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea in adults or sleep-disordered breathing in children. In addition to snoring loudly, people with these conditions may gasp or snort at night. During the day, they may feel tired and irritable. Diagnosis of snoring and sleep problems involves a medical history physical exam and sometimes an overnight sleep study in which experts analyze breathing and other body functions while the patient sleeps.

In children, enlarged tonsils and adenoids may be the culprit, and surgical removal usually solves the problem. For adults, an ENT may recommend being fitted with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that delivers a steady flow of oxygen while you sleep to help you breathe more normally.

Lump on the neck

Lumps on the neck often occur as a result of infection, but they can also be a sign of a more serious condition. Seeing an ENT may be recommended if you notice a lump or mass on your neck that doesn't go away in a few weeks, gets larger, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as weight loss, voice change, pain, hearing loss, breathing difficulties or bleeding.

Our ears, nose and throat are all connected, and they also help us connect with friends and family so that we can lead fulfilling lives. If recurrent symptoms involving the ears, nose or throat are causing you discomfort, consider seeing an ENT to preserve or restore these parts and their critical functions.