The ear, nose, and throat are sensory organs that form part of the face and neck. They share a few critical structures within the head, such as the sinuses and the Eustachian tubes. People may encounter many ear, nose, and throat (ENT) problems, and doctors often group these conditions together.
Several issues may affect the ear, nose, and throat. Some ENT problems are straightforward, while others can be more complex and involve multiple body systems.
Although a general practitioner can treat many ENT issues, some people might need to see a specialist for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Doctors specializing in these areas study them as a group. An otolaryngologist, also known as an ENT or ENT doctor, understands the structures of the ear, nose, and throat and treats their associated disorders.
This article looks at common problems that affect the ear, nose, and throat. Not all of these conditions will require specialist treatment.
The ears, nose, and throat have ties to sensory organs that humans use every day.
The ears allow a person to hear, and the inner ear helps stabilize the body and provide a sense of balance.
The nose allows a person to smell and also assists with taste. Breathing through the nose humidifies the air and helps to filter the air before it enters the lungs.
The throat provides a way for air to reach the lungs and voice box. It also connects the mouth to the esophagus, which food travels down to reach the digestive system.
These organs and their tissues form part of the complex structures of the face and neck, and they share a few important structures within the head.
Examples include the sinuses, which can pass beneath the eyes and nose, and the Eustachian tubes, which link the middle ear to the throat.
Because the ENT system shares some organs, issues that involve one part of the ENT system may also affect an organ or structure somewhere else in the ENT system.
Some examples of common ear-related problems can include:
Ear infections may occur if bacteria in the area multiply, causing inflammation and leading to symptoms.
Ear infections typically occur in the outer ear, called swimmer’s ear or the middle ear but can also occur in the inner ear.
Symptoms of various ear infections can include:
- ear pain, especially while lying down
- difficulty sleeping
- difficulty hearing or muffled hearing
- feeling fullness in the ear
- spinning sensation
- nausea and vomiting
- issues with balance
- drainage from the ear
- warmth and redness of the ear skin
- ringing in the ear
Hearing difficulties, such as hearing loss or muffled hearing, may occur as secondary symptoms due to infections or other issues in the area. Injuries to the structures of the ear may also cause hearing difficulties. Some people may be born with hearing difficulties, while others may experience hearing problems as they age.
Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, can be a secondary symptom of several other issues, such as infections. Tinnitus
Vertigo is a sensation of feeling the body is spinning or dizzy. Some people describe it as feeling like the environment around them is spinning or moving.
Vertigo may occur in response to labyrinthitis, an irritation or inflammation in the delicate parts of the inner ear that control balance and hearing. Other conditions, such as Ménière’s disease, may also lead to vertigo.
A general practitioner can determine whether an individual requires specialist treatment for their condition and can refer to an ENT doctor if necessary.
Problems that arise due to issues with the nasal cavity include:
The nose contains many blood vessels and is the part of the face that protrudes the most. Even minor trauma, such as bumping the nose or falling over, can damage the delicate blood vessels and cause a nosebleed.
Other causes can include:
- picking the nose
- blowing the nose a lot or vigorously, such as when dealing with an infection in the area
- hot, dry climates leading to cracking and cuts in the nose
- inhaling irritants
- inhaling drugs, such as cocaine
While nosebleeds are
Anyone experiencing regular nosebleeds or difficulty containing nosebleeds should speak with their doctor.
Sinusitis is inflammation of the sinuses and is one of the most common reasons people in the United States visit their doctor.
The sinuses are the hollow areas of the skull surrounding the eyes and nose. When germs get stuck in the sinuses and multiply, an infection can develop.
Sinusitis may occur as a secondary infection, such as after a common cold. Approximately
In other cases, a chronic case of sinusitis lasting for months or more may occur from other chronic issues, such as asthma or allergies.
Sinusitis symptoms can include:
- nasal discharge
- nasal congestion
- post-nasal drip
- pain in the teeth, generally the molars
People with allergic rhinitis react to allergens in the air, such as:
- pollen from plants, such as flowers and pine trees
- pet fur and dander
- dust and dust mites
- mold and fungal spores
- chemical pollutants
Allergy symptoms may include:
- red, itchy eyes
- post-nasal drip
- watery eyes
- dark circles around the eyes
- itchy nose
Working with a specialist, such as an ENT allergist, to find and eliminate allergens may help bring relief.
Problems that affect the throat include:
Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, can result from a throat infection or occur if a foreign body or another irritant gets stuck in the throat. It can also have anatomic or neurological causes.
Other symptoms of dysphagia can include:
- choking on food or drink
- coughing after swallowing
- coughing up food or vomit
- excessive saliva
- trouble chewing or moving food to the back of the mouth
In some cases, it may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as a growth in the area. A specialist can help diagnose and treat recurring bouts of dysphagia.
Inflammation in the back of the throat may be a sign of tonsilitis. The tonsils are two soft tissue organs in the back of the throat. A bacterial infection may cause the tonsils to inflame, which can cause symptoms such as:
- sore throat
- difficulty swallowing
- white coating on the tonsils and throat
- swollen glands
- bad breath
Doctors may recommend that people who regularly suffer from tonsilitis have their tonsils removed.
Sleep apnea occurs when a person momentarily stops breathing during sleep. However, similar stoppages can occur many times throughout the night. Some forms of sleep apnea can affect the nose or the throat.
Some people may not be aware they have sleep apnea unless a spouse or family member who hears them sleep alerts them to the possibility.
Some possible symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- not waking feeling rested
- regular daytime sleepiness
- waking up with a very dry throat
- headaches upon waking
- waking up frequently during the night
- loud snoring, gasping, or choking during sleep
- mood issues
People who experience sleep apnea may need treatment from an ENT specialist.
A person may visit an ENT specialist for many reasons, including:
- loss of taste
- balance issues
- impacted ear wax
- ruptured eardrum
- drainage from the ear
- Eustachian tube dysfunctions
- cysts or growths in the throat
- cancers of the head and neck
- deviated septum
- implanting hearing devices
- Ménière’s disease
- blockages in the nose
- facial plastic surgery (cosmetic and reconstructive)
- collapse of the nasal passage or valves
- voice disorders and other issues in the vocal cords
- problems with the thyroid and parathyroid hormones
A large number of issues and conditions may affect the ear, nose, and throat. The areas share connections, which means a problem in one part of the system may cause symptoms in another part of the system.
General practitioners can often treat ENT problems. However, for more complicated conditions or an accurate diagnosis, a doctor may refer someone to an otolaryngologist with specialized training, tools, and experience to handle ENT problems.