Allergies can get you down in almost any season. Sinuses can back up, and a problem spreads quickly to your ears and throat. An issue with your sinuses can make you miserable, affecting your ability to get a good night's sleep. Ear pain can cut through your head and make focus difficult, if not impossible. Throat inflammation can lead to convulsive coughing and an upper respiratory infection. When you regularly deal with post nasal drip or have chronic ear infections, you could face long-term damage. It might be a good idea to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist, known for short as an ENT.

If you've already received an ENT referral, or have an appointment to discuss ENT health issues with your primary care doctor, make sure you arrive well-informed about what the ENT specialist can do for you.

What is an otolaryngologist?

An ENT specialist, or a doctor with a specialty in otolaryngology, can help you with chronic issues that plague your ear, nose or throat. They help with conditions ranging from inflammation of the sinuses to fluid build-up in the ear canal. An ENT doctor helps with conditions like sinusitis, tinnitus, airway blockages, hearing loss, congestion, headaches and more. If the problem originates in the ear, nose or throat, you want to see a specialist in those areas.

When to see an otolaryngologist

The most common reason to ask for a referral to an ENT is allergies. Allergies affect up to 30% of adults in America, making it one of the most common illnesses. When dealing with allergies, an ENT can help with chronic issues that don't respond well to typical medications.

Other reasons to see an ENT might include hearing loss, chronic sinus problems, tinnitus (an unexplained ringing sound), balance disorders, voice and swallowing issues, and a host of other problems that present in the ear, nose, throat, head, or neck.

If you have symptoms that persist after treatment or deal with chronic illnesses in these areas, it is probably time to seek a specialist.

What does an otolaryngologist do?

An ENT doctor can perform surgical procedures to help with ear, nose or throat issues. If you are getting your tonsils taken out, installing cochlear implants or having tubes put in your ears, you will probably need to see an ENT doctor. These doctors also perform a variety of reconstruction surgeries ranging from wrinkle removal to hair transplants.

An ENT doctor is often able to diagnose more complex issues that affect one or more of the systems in your ears, nose or throat. For example, sinus issues can be a contributing factor in chronic migraines. Chronic ear infections can also lead to sinus blockages. ENT's specialize in the conditions that commonly affect these areas and how to get to the underlying cause.

How is an otolaryngologist certified?

Prospective ENT doctors start with a medical degree, which involves completing a residency program that lasts approximately three years. This degree qualifies them to practice general medicine, once they complete any state or jurisdictional licensing requirements.

To become an ENT, they need further specialization and training. For board certification through the American Board of Otolaryngology, an ENT must have at least five years of specialist training. They can also go for additional specialization through a fellowship and gain experience in one of the seven ENT subspecialties. An ENT can specialize in:

  • Pediatrics
  • Neurotology
  • Rhinology
  • Laryngology
  • Reconstructive Surgery
  • Allergy
  • Head and Neck

Each of these specializations better allows them to diagnose and treat specific conditions. If you have an allergy issue, you will want to see and ENT with that specialty. If you have chronic ear infections, you might need to see someone with a neurotology specialty.  To find certified doctors, you can look on the American Board of Otolaryngology website to verify certifications.

Referral and research

Before you can see an ENT, you will probably need to get a referral from your primary care physician. Most insurance companies require a referral before they will authorize payment. If you have a chronic issue, getting a referral should be easy with a visit to your PCP. Your doctor will likely refer you to an ENT specialist they know and trust, and who is in the same healthcare network so that they can stay in contact regarding your medical care process. You should be able to play an active role in selecting the specialist

Once you have talked with your primary care physician about getting a referral, you may want to get a few recommendations. You can also conduct independent research to find a physician who suits your needs. Start with some basic questions about education, specialties, and certification.

Questions to ask your otolaryngologist

When you first sit down with an ENT specialist, you will want to get a few questions taken care of right away. Be sure to ask:

  • Are you a specialist in my particular issue? If you have allergies, you'll want to see someone with that specialty. The same is true for most chronic ENT issues, so be sure to ask about specialization before choosing your doctor.
  • What are the treatment options? With ENT issues, both surgical and prescription solutions are on the table. Be clear about your symptoms and the type of treatment you want to pursue.
  • What are the medication side effects? If you start taking medications to reduce your symptoms, many of them have side effects. If they may impact your ability to operate heavy machinery or drive, you need to know before you start taking them.
  • How long will treatment last? For many chronic ENT issues, treatment is ongoing. Allergies will probably need constant management, but other issues may be permanently solved with a surgical solution. Discuss the options and the recovery time.

Your first visit with an ENT specialist gives you the opportunity to learn more about your health care needs and determine whether you feel your physician is well suited to you. It's best to arrive at your appointment well prepared, with knowledge about what to expect, and a list of questions to ask. If you don't feel comfortable with this specialist for any reason, consider seeking a second opinion. Use the CareDash physician search tool to write doctor reviews and check for malpractice claims.  

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