Female ENT provider examining an older female patient's ear
Healthy Living

Sick Day? When to go to the ENT vs. Primary Care Doctor

Nov 20 2018

When to see a specialist for ear, nose and throat problems

An ENT is an ear, nose and throat doctor. An ENT is also called an otolaryngologist. Whether the doctor is called an ENT or otolaryngologist, this professional is trained in treating patients with ear, nose and throat disorders and diseases.

An ENT trains in the specialty for years, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery. ENTs can have expertise in the following areas:

  • Allergies: allergy sensitivities
  • Facial plastic and reconstructive surgery: cosmetic procedures and trauma surgery
  • Head and neck: cancerous and noncancerous tumors
  • Laryngology: throat conditions
  • Otology/neurotology: ear diseases and traumas
  • Pediatric otolaryngology: birth defects and childhood diseases of head or neck
  • Rhinology: nose diseases and traumas
  • Sleep disorders: ear, nose and throat disorders affecting sleep

What ENT problems can my primary care provider treat?

Primary care physicians can sometimes treat certain ear, nose and throat issues. Before calling an ENT, contact your primary care doctor about the following common conditions:

  • Tinnitus (ringing in your ears)
  • Vertigo (feeling out of balance)
  • Sinusitis (congestion and headaches)
  • Hearing loss (due to minor infection)
  • Growths (related to many conditions)

Your doctor might think the condition is complex. They’ll refer to a proper specialist or ENT for diagnosis and treatment.

If you have a child with an ear, nose or throat problem, your pediatrician may refer you to an ENT specialist. Sometimes a pediatrician doesn’t want to handle an ENT issue, like cleaning a child’s impacted ear wax. Or, if your child has recurring ear infections, it’s best to see an ENT. That’s because an ENT has specialized training and equipment to handle delicate little ears, noses and throats. ENTs are also trained to insert tiny ear tubes in a child’s middle ear. The tubes circulate air and resolve chronic ear infections.

What problems do I need to go to an ENT for?

It’s perfectly fine to start by making an appointment with your general practitioner for an ear, nose or throat problem. Here are some conditions for which you might go directly to an ENT:

  • Sudden hearing loss that needs a hearing test
  • Chronic tonsil problems and sore throats for both kids and adults
  • Lump in the neck (adults), which could indicate mouth, throat or thyroid cancer
  • Chronic ear infections, especially for kids, but also for adults (it could mean a growth)
  • Hoarseness that lasts longer than six weeks for vocal cord damage, polyps or other problems

During an exam with an ENT, the doctor looks into your ears, nose and throat using special tools. Instruments, such as an otoscope, are designed to look deep into your ear to diagnose wax buildup, ear infections and other problems. A curette is a long, skinny tool that gently scoops ear wax out of your ear. An ear irrigator and bulb syringe clear ear wax and debris buildup.

After an exam, an ENT may prescribe antibiotics. They might want you to do special imaging tests called MRIs if the doctor feels it’s necessary for your specific issue.

What should I look for when choosing an ENT?

Choosing the right ENT doctor for you or your child is important. Besides getting along with an ENT specialist, you want to choose a doctor with board certification from the American Board of Otolaryngology (ABO). To be board certified, the doctor must have completed four years of college, four years of medical school and at least five years of specialty training. Then they need to pass the ABO examination.

Find out how much experience and expertise an ENT has for your particular issue. It helps if your ENT is involved with medical groups and associations. That means they’re staying on top of the latest research and techniques in the otolaryngology field. It’s a plus if an ENT has an audiologist on staff to give hearing tests. Audiologists are also trained in fitting and adjusting hearing aids.

Do you or your child have an ear, nose or throat issue? Visit Mercy.com to find a primary care doctor or an ENT near you. We’re here to provide compassionate care while treating your condition.

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