If you suspect you may have a hearing impairment, the best piece of advice anyone can give you is to speak with a medical specialist. That holds true if you're experiencing any trouble with your ears. Verifiable medical advice will be more valuable than anything you can learn on Google.

The question, of course, is who you should contact. Should you schedule an appointment with your audiologist or find an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. Is there even any difference between the two?

Believe it or not, yes—considerably. Although there's some overlap between the professions, they are ultimately very different from one another. And it's important that you understand those differences so you know where you should go to seek treatment.

What Does an Audiologist Do?

An audiologist is an expert in hearing impairment and hearing damage.

They're trained specifically to identify and diagnose hearing loss and symptoms related to hearing loss, such as tinnitus and vertigo. Many audiologists also help rehabilitate individuals who've experienced recent hearing impairment. They are also authorized to prescribe hearing assistance devices such as hearing aids or recommend a procedure such as cochlear implant surgery.

However, an audiologist is neither trained nor authorized to actually perform those procedures. They also cannot prescribe medications. As such, in scenarios where medicine or surgery is required, an audiologist will typically refer their patient to either an otologist or otolaryngologist.

What Does an ENT Specialist Do?

You may have noticed that we mentioned two specialists in the previous section—otologists and otolaryngologists. Both are highly-trained, specialized medical professionals authorized to perform surgery and prescribe medication as needed. The only difference lies in their area of focus.

Otologists are specifically focused on the ear. Otolaryngologists, meanwhile, are ENT doctors. In addition to providing medical treatment for hearing impairment, they also deal with everything from tonsillitis to sinus infections. If a patient experiencing hearing loss visits an ENT specialist and it's determined that said patient does not require medication or surgical intervention, the ENT will typically refer them to an audiologist.

Some of the things ENT doctors might handle over the course of a typical work week include:

  • Cancer of the head and neck
  • Reconstructive facial surgery
  • Restorative techniques
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Allergies
  • Neurological disorders

What's the Difference Between Audiologists and ENT Doctors?

Aside from ENTs having a broader area of focus than audiologists, the primary difference involves training. Audiologists typically complete a doctorate in audiology. Although they are still held to high standards by the audiology profession, they are not technically regarded as medical professionals. An ENT doctor, on the other hand, must undergo extensive schooling to break into their profession.

First, they must obtain a medical degree. Yet said degree only makes them licensed as a general medical practitioner. In order to work as an otolaryngologist, they must also attend medical school then undergo up to five years of specialist training. 

This adds up to roughly 13 years of schooling before an otolaryngologist is even licensed to practice.  But there's a very good reason for all that training. Surgery, particularly surgery in an area of the body as sensitive as the head and ears, is an extremely delicate craft. An inexperienced hand could very easily cause permanent, perhaps even fatal damage.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

It's important to understand that although ENT doctors are more highly-trained than audiologists, that does not make them superior. At the end of the day, you may be working with both types of medical professionals to diagnose and treat your hearing loss. Each has their place when it comes to hearing health.

But that doesn't answer our initial question, does it? If you suspect you may be suffering from hearing impairment, which of the two should you call? What's the right move?

Generally speaking, unless you have reason to believe the cause may be something severe or harmful to your person, contact your audiologist first. If it turns out that things are worse than you thought, they'll simply refer you to a specialist that's better equipped to handle your problem.

If you are concerned about your hearing health, learn more about what happens during a hearing test.