Ear, Throat and Nose

These three body parts handle several important functions:  hearing, breathing, smelling, swallowing, speech and balance.  The ears, nose and throat are commonly grouped together , perhaps because they are linked together in the body and infection can easily pass from one to the other two.


Several things can break down and go wrong in these three organs, from earaches during childhood to hearing loss to chronic sinusitis.  Throw in nosebleeds, swollen adenoids, swimmer's ear and snoring and one begins to see how interrelated these conditions can become. 

An otolaryngologist is a physician who specializes in treating just the ears, nose and throat in his or her patients.  These health care professionals are specifically trained in the surgical and medical treatment dealing with disorders and diseases of the ears, nose and throat as well as related problems in the head and neck.

The passageway connecting the ear to the nasal cavity and the upper part of the throat is called the eustachian tube.  It allows aeration and drainage from the ear's middle part.  Unfortunately, this tube also allows micro-organisms to enter the ear from the nose or the throat.  The most common ear, nose and throat (ENT) disorders are typically blockages and infections.


The ears are not just responsible for an individual being able to hear:  these complex organs are also necessary for a person's balance.

The ears are divided into three sections - the outer, middle and inner ear.

  • Outer Ear - The outer ear is made up of the visible part, called the pinna, and the ear canal.  The pinna gathers sound waves from the environment around the person and directs them to the ear canal. 

  • Middle Ear - The eardrum separates the outer ear from the middle ear.  Also called the tympanic membrane, the eardrum vibrates from sound waves, and the vibrations are transmitted through a series of three tiny bones in the middle ear called the malleus (hammer), the incus (or anvil), and the stapes, or stirrup. 

  • Inner Ear - These vibrations move on into the inner ear, to a bony, fluid-filled structure shaped like a snail shell.  This structure (called the cochlea) translates the vibrations into nerve impulses, which are then interpreted by the brain via the auditory nerve into meaningful sounds.

 The eustachian tube in the ear is tasked with allowing air pressure in the middle ear to balance with the air pressure outside the body in order to prevent the eardrum from rupturing.  The inner ear contains a series of canals known as the labyrinth which detect movement and position of the head to ensure the body is able to maintain proper balance.


The nose has two very distinct and separate jobs:  detecting smells and acting as the entry point to the lungs and respiratory tract.  In its function as part of the respiratory system, the nose moisturizes and warms air coming into the body and filters out foreign particles.  In the lining of the nose there are small glands which secrete mucus to moisten the walls of the throat and nose.  This mucus traps dust and bacteria entering the nostrils.  Some of the bacteria is dissolved by the chemical reaction taking place in the mucus, while other bacteria are transported to the throat via tiny hairs called cilia.  This bacteria is swallowed and killed by acids in the stomach.

Four groups of sinuses are connected to the nose.  The sinuses are air-filled cavities in facial bones and are lined with glands which secrete mucus.  The four sinus groups are called frontal, spehnoidal, ethmoidal and maxillary.

Nerve receptor cells in the lining of the nose detect odors and relay messages to the brain through the olfactory nerve.  A person's sense of smell also enhances his or her sense of taste.


The throat is considered part of the digestive system and the respiratory system because both air and food pass through the throat.  The throat contains channels entering from the nose, sinuses and mouth before branching off into the stomach line (esophagus) and the lung line (trachea or windpipe).  Muscular actions during swallowing help to keep the intakes to the stomach and the airways separate.

The throat (which is also called the pharynx) is divided into three sections:  the nasopharynx (the upper part of the throat that opens into the nose), the middle portion or oropharynx (which opens into the mouth), and the lower part or laryngopharynx, which connects with the other parts of the larynx (or voice box), where the vocal cords are located.

When air is breathed out the vocal cords come together and vibrate, producing speech.  Each person's resonance while speaking is formed by the shape of their nose, throat, mouth and sinuses.  Many infections begin in the throat, and the tonsils (masses of lymphoid tissue) work as defenders of the respiratory system.

The adenoids are similar tissue masses to the tonsils and are located behind the nose.  Some scientists believe the adenoids and tonsils help to defend the body from bacteria by "sampling" these invaders and producing antibodies to fight them off, in effect building up the body's immunity system.



  1. McCracken, T. & Walker, R. New atlas of human anatomy, London : Constable (2001)
  2. Parker, S. The Concise Human Body Book, Dorling Kindersley Limited (2009)
  3. Winston, R. et al. Human: The Definitive Visual Guide, DK Publishing, Inc (2004)
  4. Ullmann, H.F. Atlas of Anatomy, Elsevier GmbH, Munich (2009)

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Ear, Throat and Nose Disorders

Ear Infections

Ear infections occur when bacteria or fungi invade and infect the ear. Middle ear infections, or acute otitis media, cause inflammation behind the drum of the ear, especially in the Eustachian tube, which connects the throat and back of nose to the middle ear. Ear infections usually happen quickly and can result in very painful earaches, fever, and difficulty hearing.


Tinnitus is a constant ringing (or other noise) in the ears for which there is no known external cause. Individuals may hear noises such as ringing, buzzing, whistling, or some other persistent sound. Most persons have experienced at least a few second of tinnitus, such as after hearing a siren go by, passing a jackhammer during construction, or after hearing a loud concert. Tinnitus is more common in people over 55. While tinnitus often disappears without medical treatment for some, it may be a recurring medical issue for others.


Sinusitis is an infection of the spaces in the bones around the nose, also called the sinuses. This infection causes inflammation in the membranes that line the sinuses. Sinusitis symptoms include tenderness in the face, aching behind the eyes, sinus congestion, difficulty breathing through the nose, headaches, fever, reduced sense of smell, aching in the jaw or teeth, bad breath, and ear pain.


An inflammation of the tonsils as a result of an infection is called tonsillitis. The tonsils are the two oval lymphatic tissue structures on either side of the back of the mouth and the throat in a human being. Tonsillitis can be especially common in young children. Because recurrent bouts of tonsillitis can cause problems with breathing, middle ear infections, and other types of infections, it is important to properly diagnose this condition. When tonsillitis continues to recur, surgery may be recommended to remove the tonsils.


Laryngitis can be caused by an irritation or by an infection. One very common cause is the same type of viral infection which leads to colds. Some other causes include respiratory allergies, inhaling chemical irritants, smoking, bacterial infections, shouting, giving speeches, and, in some people, drinking alcohol.

Hearing Loss

. The hearing loss can affect one or both ears and can be partial or total. There are basically two types of hearing loss: conductive, where sound waves are blocked from traveling through the ear; and sensorineural, where the sensory cells or nerves in the ear have been destroyed.


Nosebleeds are a fairly common condition and can occur at virtually any age. The bleeding can be anything from a small trickle to a heavy flow that lasts more than 15 minutes. Some individuals have isolated nosebleeds, while others have recurring problems.

Sore Throat

Sore throat, also known as tonsillitis or pharyngitis, occurs when the pharynx or tonsils become inflamed. Sore throats can occur all year long, not just during the winter months. This condition generally lasts for just two to three days.

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