The ABCs of ENTs

January 30th, 2019
A person has their ear examined with an otoscope.
ENTs, or otolaryngologists, can care for a variety of concerns related to the ears, nose or throat. Photo by Getty Images.

There’s a lot that happens in our bodies from the neck up: from speech and vision, to breathing and smell, various processes are packed into a small space. Which means health issues can have far-reaching effects.

That’s where the help of an otolaryngologist, or an ears, nose and throat doctor (ENT) can come in handy. Below, Dr. Jason Sigmon, an otolaryngologist at UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Steamboat Springs, describes what you need to know about the specialty.

Dr. Jason Sigmon is an otolaryngologist at UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Steamboat Springs. Photo courtesy of UCHealth.

ENTs see patients for various issues

From hearing and balance to chronic infections and sleep apnea, and from problems breathing and swallowing to allergies, ENTs help patients with a range of health challenges.

“We’re like the quarterback when it comes to issues involved with speech, vocal production, smell, breathing, hearing and balance,” Sigmon said. “We work really closely with a lot of other specialists, such as optometrists, ophthalmologists, neurologists and more. We’re a clearing house for evaluating a lot of these kinds of issues.”

Often when a patient visits an ENT, he or she will have a range of symptoms. “It’s not unusual to see a patient with ringing ears, hoarseness, swallowing concerns and stuffiness all in one visit,” Sigmon said.

These health issues can signal something bigger

Sometimes, an initial symptom is a clue that there’s a system-wide issue. For instance, difficulty swallowing can be a sign of a gastrointestinal issue, while a hoarse voice may be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s important for patients to not ignore those symptoms because there are times they can represent bigger issues,” Sigmon said.

ENTs perform surgical procedures

From biopsies and sinus surgery, to inserting ear tubes or removing tonsils, ENTs perform a variety of surgeries. Many of these procedures are quick, outpatient procedures. However, most visits to an ENT do not involve surgery.

“We are surgeons but it’s important for people to understand that the bulk of the time, we’re there in the clinic, seeing people for things that don’t involve surgery,” Sigmon said.

A resource for allergy issues and skin cancer

“ENTs have a rich legacy of managing patients who have allergy issues,” Sigmon said. Not only do allergies affect the upper respiratory system and breathing, but often, issues with anatomy make the allergies worse. Food allergy concerns can also be evaluated.

And don’t let the idea of shots scare you away: allergy testing can be done without needles and allergies can often be treated with drops taken under the tongue instead of allergy shots.

ENTs also monitor skin issues and can identify and treat skin cancers.

Improvements with technology

Technological advances allow ENTs to weed through various symptoms impacting patients and new technology makes surgical procedures much easier.

For instance, 3-D image guidance is now used for procedures on the sinuses and nose, reducing pain and bruising. “Many people struggle with nasal problems but worry getting them fixed will involve a lot of pain,” Sigmon said. “That’s just not the case anymore because of the great technology.”

When to see an ENT

A visit to a primary provider is always a good place to start, but don’t hesitate to see an ENT if your symptoms are recurrent, worsening or have lasted for a while. Take ringing in the ears, for instance. “If your ears ring every now and then, you probably don’t need to come in,” Sigmon said. “But if the ringing is increasing, worsening or affecting your balance, then it’s time to get evaluated.”

 

This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Jan. 7, 2018.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at susancunninghambooks.com.