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Audiologist and Otolaryngologist: What's The Difference?

If you’re experiencing loss of hearing, tinnitus (an annoying ringing or buzzing in your ear), or other problems in your ears, nose, or throat, then you should seek the advice of a medical expert. But who do you see, an audiologist or an otolaryngologist?

You need to see the right professional so that you can receive the proper care, but for many people confusion exists about the difference between the two professions. So what is the difference between an audiologist and an otolaryngologist?

What is an Audiologist?

An audiologist is a healthcare professional that specializes in treating people that experience hearing loss and balance disorders, including tinnitus. They primarily deal with issues related to sensorineural hearing loss, which is hearing loss that stems from damage in the inner, such as from ageing (presbycusis), or noise-induced hearing loss. Most audiologists have either a bachelor's degree or master’s degree in audiology, but some have a doctorate in audiology (Au.D.).

They are trained in monitoring and diagnosing issues of the auditory system, or those pertaining to hearing, and the vestibular system, which is the sensory system that provides information to the brain dealing with motion, head position, balance, and spatial orientation.

An audiologist’s main goal is to improve a patient’s ability to hear and communicate, thereby improving the patient’s quality of life. They do not perform surgery or prescribe medication. Instead, they attempt to treat hearing loss non-invasively, such as by prescribing hearing aids or other hearing assistive devices, performing diagnosis exams, counseling, and auditory training.

What is an Otolaryngologist?

An otolaryngologist is also known as an ENT physician, or ear, nose, and throat doctor. Unlike audiologists who are hearing health professionals (sometimes with a doctorate), otolaryngologists are MDs, having received their doctorate in medicine. They specialize in the treatment of issues relating to the ears, nose, and throat and are trained to perform surgery. 

Because the ear, nose, and throat are so interconnected, they essentially function as one unit, and problems in one usually affect the other parts, such as sinus infections. An otolaryngologists is an expert and can treat problems in all three areas.

Whereas audiologists deal primarily with sensorineural hearing loss, otolaryngologists usually manage conductive hearing loss, which is hearing loss due to issues in either the outer or middle ear that prevent sound transmission to the inner ear. To correct some of these issues, otolaryngologists will perform surgery to implant cochlear implants or bone anchored hearing aids. They perform various surgeries including ear tube surgery and removal of tonsils. Otolaryngologists also treat hearing loss that is associated with ear trauma, tumors, infections, or conditions such as otosclerosis.

Otolaryngologists will often treat these issues and then refer patients to an audiologist for follow-up care, which may consist of auditory rehabilitation or getting fitted for a hearing aid.

Which Do I Need To See?

Strictly speaking, an audiologist only deals with issues relating to the ears, whereas an otolaryngologist treats conditions related to the ears, nose, and throat. An audiologist primarily treats hearing loss, tinnitus, and balance issues; an otolaryngologist typically does not treat hearing loss, instead treating other medical issues related to the ears, nose, and throat.

You should see an audiologist if:

  • You are experiencing difficulty hearing sounds (particularly high-pitched sounds) or communicating with family members or others
  • You have been experiencing a loss of hearing that has been going on for many years
  • You are experiencing hearing loss and your physician does not diagnose a medical cause, such as infection, tumor, or ear wax impaction

You should see an otolaryngologist if:

  • You are experiencing an immediate drop in your ability to hear, which could indicate a condition requiring surgery
  • You are experiencing ear wax impaction (although your physician may be able to treat this)
  • You are experiencing ear pain, dizziness, pressure, or tinnitus (an audiologist can also treat this, but an otolaryngologist will determine whether the cause is medical or not)
  • Your physician suspects a medical cause for your hearing loss
  • You are experiencing additional symptoms related to your nose and throat, such as sinus issues or lumps on your neck

If your main issue is that you are experiencing problems hearing sounds or understanding conversations with others, then the first place to start is probably with a licensed audiologist.

An audiologist will give you a hearing test and an examination of your ears to explore the possible causes for your hearing loss. If they discover a medical condition with your ears, such as a tumor or infection, then they will refer you to an otolaryngologist to treat your condition. If your main issue is something other than hearing loss but having to do with your ears, such as pain or swelling, then you should see an otolaryngologist.

If you’re still unsure about whether you need to see an audiologist or otolaryngologist for your hearing or other issues, the best course of action is to schedule a visit with your primary care physician. They will give you an examination to determine if you have any type of ear infection, sinus infection, injury to your ear, or something as simple as earwax buildup.

Depending on what your physician finds, they may refer you to either an otolaryngologist for further examination or a licensed audiologist for a hearing test.

The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources:

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