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Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids: Pros & Cons

older woman holding a hearing aid

Over-the-counter hearing aids are a newer, less expensive option if you need help with hearing loss. They don't require a visit to an audiologist or doctor for a professional fitting.

A recent ruling by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed hearing aids to be sold directly to consumers. Adults 18 and up can buy them in pharmacies, stores, and online — no prescription needed.

They typically cost a lot less than traditional hearing aids.

Sounds great, right? But while over-the-counter hearing aids are a solution for some, they won’t work for everyone — especially people with severe hearing loss.

Hearing Aid Options

Before the FDA ruling, you could only get hearing aids through a licensed audiologist or hearing aid dispenser. Approval for these hearing aids requires medical clearance, a hearing test (audiogram), and a custom fitting. Insurance rarely covers hearing aids, though tests and fittings are sometimes covered. They use sophisticated technology, so they’re expensive. Hearing aids can cost $2,000-$7,000 per pair.

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Some people who can’t afford hearing aids use a hearing amplifier (or hunter’s amplifier), which you can buy from a sporting goods or hunting store. Hunting amplifiers make every sound louder, so they’re good if you need to hear a deer in a quiet forest. But they don’t work well for everyday life.

“People don’t like them because they amplify everything — the door closing, the dish falling in the sink, the toilet flushing," explains UVA Health ear specialist Bradley Kesser, MD.

Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Pros

Over-the-counter hearing aids have several advantages over hearing amplifiers and prescription hearing aids:

Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Cons

However, over-the-counter hearing aids aren't for everyone. They have these drawbacks.

No Customization

Over-the-counter hearing aids are cheaper than custom hearing aids, but there’s a reason for that. They're one-size-fits-all.

Some over-the-counter devices may be adjustable, but they aren’t programmed to your unique hearing needs. “People are going to have to play around with them a little bit to see if there's a good setting for them,” says Kesser.

And unlike traditional hearing aids, you won’t have an audiologist or other healthcare professional for fitting, ongoing maintenance, and management of your over-the-counter hearing aids.

Convenience May Be Short-Lived

Skipping the audiologist might seem convenient at first, but it could become a hassle. You're responsible for repairs and maintenance of over-the-counter hearing aids and need to work with the manufacturer or store if you have any problems.

By law, if your prescription hearing aid doesn’t work for you, you can return it for a refund. But there is no such rule for over-the-counter hearing aids. Some retailers may allow you to return them, but it’s up to them. So, buyer beware.

Only for Mild or Moderate Hearing Loss

If you have severe hearing loss, over-the-counter hearing aids aren't for you. They're only for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. Those with severe hearing loss need to see a doctor or audiologist for custom-fitted hearing aids or other treatments.

But maybe you’re like me and wondering how you know if your hearing loss is mild, moderate, or severe? The truth is there’s no good way to tell unless you see an audiologist.

“Patients don't know if they're truly a candidate for one of these over-the-counter hearing aids,” says Kesser. “It's a little bit of trial and error.”

You Still May Need to See a Doctor or Audiologist for Hearing Loss

If you’ve never had any trouble with your ears — including surgery or infections — over-the-counter hearing aids may be a cost-effective option. But if a medical condition is causing your hearing loss, you should see a doctor.

Infections, holes in the eardrum, and other conditions can cause hearing loss. These conditions are often fixable. And if you’re struggling with hearing in only 1 ear, that’s a sign to see a doctor. It could be a benign tumor called a vestibular schwannoma. “Many times, we can improve hearing with surgery,” says Kesser. And unlike hearing aids, insurance usually covers ear surgery.

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