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What to Know Before Buying Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids

Adults with hearing loss should consider their options carefully and remain mindful about taking care of their hearing health.

This month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized a ruling allowing over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids to be purchased without a medical exam, prescription or professional fitting. This is great news for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss who do not have access to a nearby audiologist or cannot afford a prescription hearing aid.

However, these OTC hearing aids are no substitute for regular exams or hearing tests from an audiologist or hearing health professional, and consumers should be mindful before purchasing them. Audiologist Dr. Alexandra Costlow speaks to the pros and cons of OTC hearing aids and what you should consider before you buy.

Hearing Aids: Prescription vs. OTC Devices

Hearing loss impacts nearly one quarter of Americans over the age of 65 and nearly half of Americans over the age of 75. By making sounds louder, hearing aids can help people with hearing difficulties more easily communicate and participate in daily activities.

Prescription hearing aids are medical devices that have been fitted and programmed by audiologists or hearing health providers. “These devices are customized for each patient and there is a lot of care and maintenance that goes into having a hearing aid, including regular visits for hearing aid cleaning and maintenance, hearing tests and  re-programming if a change in hearing has occurred,” says Dr. Costlow.

OTC hearing aids will be more accessible and are being sold both online and in stores and at pharmacies where other healthcare devices are sold. However, a formal hearing test or evaluation from a medical professional is not required in order to purchase.

“It is extremely important to have your hearing evaluated regularly by a professional especially if you’re experiencing hearing loss,” says Dr. Costlow. “The danger of OTC hearing aids is that people with more severe hearing problems—including hearing loss that is caused by excessive exposure to unsafe listening levels or an underlying medical problem—may not be diagnosed if they choose this option over seeing a health professional. This may affect or damage someone’s hearing in the long run.”

What to Consider Before Buying

Cost and Customer Support

A big advantage to OTC hearing aids is that their average cost can be much lower than most prescription hearing aids. However, this may not be true in every case. “OTC hearing aids may be just as expensive as some prescription hearing aids,” says Dr. Costlow. “Many audiologists offer prescription hearing aids for close to or at the same price as an OTC device, while providing the support to examine your ears, check your hearing, adjust the fit and programming of your device and provide regular device cleanings and maintenance. At Jefferson, these services are all covered for the duration of the device’s warranty.”

Before you buy an OTC device, check with customer support for details on the warranty and what services are included. Some OTC devices offer remote evaluations from an audiologist and support for services like device cleanings.

Dr. Costlow also advises consumers to look into their health coverage and talk to their healthcare provider about costs. “Some private health insurance plans and Medicare supplemental plans have hearing aid benefits. Some veterans are also entitled to prescription hearing aids through veterans affairs medical centers,” says Dr. Costlow.

Fit and Efficacy

OTC hearing aids are self-fitting, meaning the user will select how they are fitted without the guidance or support of a professional. This has the potential to make them less effective than a prescription hearing aid while still potentially costing the consumer hundreds of dollars.

“It’s important to be mindful of your rights as a consumer if you purchase an OTC device and it doesn’t meet your needs. Make sure there is someone who can answer your questions, like customer support, and understand the return policy before buying,” says Dr. Costlow.

Safety Concerns

Make sure you are educated on how to safely care for your device before purchasing an OTC hearing aid. “When you meet with an audiologist, they will review critical education on how to safely care for your device,” says Dr. Costlow. “For example, the batteries inside a hearing aid are toxic if they are accidentally ingested. So be careful and do not leave your hearing aids within reach of pets or small children.”

If you are concerned about your hearing or considering a hearing aid, visit your primary care provider or the Jefferson Health Balance & Hearing Center to be evaluated by an audiologist. Dr. Costlow reminds patients, “The best way to care for your hearing is to seek an evaluation and a formal hearing test and to meet with a healthcare provider who can answer your questions and address your needs to find the best solution.”

From the Experts, Healthy You