Before You Buy: What You Need to Know About Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids
Hearing aids are now available over the counter in the US. Audiologists and established technology companies have teamed up to make hearing aids more accessible to the public. You no longer need to see a health practitioner to get hearing aids for age-related hearing loss, making hearing aids less expensive in general.
Here’s what’s available and where you can purchase your own over-the-counter hearing aids.
What type of hearing aid should I choose?
There are three hearing aid designs to choose from: behind-the-ear, in-the-ear and in-the-canal.
The largest of the three devices loops behind your ear like the ends of glasses. This is best for people with significant hearing loss or who require a sturdy, hard-to-lose and easy-to-clean device. However, they may get in the way of glasses or masks.
The more discreet hearing aid goes in your ear with the volume control and battery in reach on the very front. While this
is smaller, it isn’t recommended if you have a history of excess earwax. Also, some wearers notice that their own voice echoes when they wear in-the-ear aids.
The nearly invisible design places the hearing aid directly into the canal. Only the pull string, used to take the device out, can be seen emerging from the inner ear. Due to its placement, this design is easy to keep dry from rain and snow, but similarly to the in-the-ear design, it’s not recommended for people with excess earwax.
Sound amplification devices vs. hearing aids
Dr. Lindsay Creed is the associate director of audiology practices and a member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “Personal sound amplification products are unregulated devices that are intended to provide situational hearing enhancement,” she says. “They are not medical devices and are not intended to be used by individuals with hearing loss.” These devices are less sophisticated than many of the self-fitting over-the-counter hearing aids that we now see entering the marketplace.
Hearing aids, on the other hand, are medical devices regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and designed to amplify sound for the wearer. These devices are recommended for those with age-related or self-perceived hearing loss.
How to buy OTC hearing aids
Buying over-the-counter hearing aids just got very simple. If you’re interested in obtaining hearing aids at your local pharmacy, follow these steps:
1. Optional: Get a hearing test performed by a professional.
2. Order hearing aids online or in-store.
3. Try them on yourself at home.
4. Carefully determine your max output (a doctor’s help is recommended).
Where to buy an OTC hearing aid
Over-the-counter hearing aids will soon be available at your local pharmacy, grocery store, some chain stores and online. These include:
- Best Buy
- Sam’s Club
Check your local stores. Some brands are not yet available nationwide.
- Best Buy says the brands it carries cost anywhere from $200 to $3,000.
- Walmart offers brands costing from $199 to $999 per device.
- CVS carries a few brands that cost anywhere from $299 to $999 per device.
Many OTC hearing aid brands available
The following devices will be available in stores and online:
Does insurance cover over-the-counter hearing aids?
Insurance coverage for OTC hearing aids will be individual and plan specific. If an individual’s insurance plan has hearing aid benefits, they will determine whether or not it can apply to OTC hearing aids. “Payment will be on a case-by-case basis,” Creed says, “and some companies may require a prescription from a provider even though they are OTC.”
People who don’t have hearing aid coverage through their insurance may be able to use FSA funds.
Are over-the-counter hearing aids right for you?
If you’re 18 or older with self-perceived mild to moderate hearing loss, OTC hearing aids might be right for you.
While over-the-counter hearing aids don’t require a medical evaluation, Creed says, “I caution consumers not to buy without first seeing a professional. The best practice or best care is still to see an audiologist to know your hearing levels. They will help you make the best decision.”
How to know if an OTC hearing aid fits correctly
Your hearing aids should adapt to the length and depth of your ear canal. The device should fit comfortably on or in your ears. If you bend over or open and close your jaw, the device should not fall out. It should be snug but not so tight that it is uncomfortable. The wiring of the behind-the-ear devices should lie flat against your skin. Lastly, if you hear a whistling sound, it may not be far enough. If that continues, you may have the wrong size hearing aid.
However, it’s best to consult an audiologist to know if your hearing aid truly fits correctly.
Features to look out for
When deciding which device is best for you, pay attention to the special features.
You want hearing aids that will last long enough to get through your day. Some brands have batteries that can last up to 16 hours, while others can go for 70.
Similar to Apple AirPods, some of the best hearing aids can connect to your phone. That way, you can listen to music or watch TV on the go. In addition, look for brands that come with their own app. You will then be able to control your device via your phone.
Excessive earwax can damage your device. Find one that has filters, especially if you have excessive earwax.
Whether the device is made for over or inside the ear, or it’s designed to fit directly in the ear canal, you want to make sure it will be comfortable. Look for hearing aids that use soft “tips” (the part that goes in your ear) or other customization, such as adjustable wires, to comfortably fit your ears.
For example, Sony’s C10 Self-Fitting OTC Hearing Aids are made with soft ear tips and come in four sizes for small to larger ears.
You will want to try on your hearing aids at home; if they don’t fit, you will need to return them. Each brand’s return policy should be available on the packaging. A 30-day or more return policy is best.
Are there any risks with OTC hearing aids?
Yes, as with any medical device, there are risks. If you do not have a hearing test performed by a doctor prior to buying OTC, you may be unprepared to use them properly. The max output on the devices may cause hearing loss if you do not require a high level (a doctor can tell you your max output level via a test).
Additionally, OTC hearing aids may pose a risk to minors. Creed adds, “I worry about kids getting them. The FDA is not requiring an ID to purchase.” She says that these devices won’t be locked up in stores and pharmacies, so theoretically, anyone can get their hands on them. The max output on these devices can cause hearing loss in minors.
OTC hearing aids aren’t for everyone. You may need to see a physician or get a prescription.
Reasons you may need prescription hearing aids include:
- Hearing aids are too loud or too quiet
- You have a child that requires hearing aids
- This is your first time using a hearing aid
See a physician if you have a history or experience any of the following:
- Excessive ear wax buildup
- Vertigo with hearing loss
- Hearing loss or ringing in only one ear
- Fluid, pus or blood coming out of your ear
- Pain or discomfort in one or both ears
As a whole, the availability of hearing aids over-the-counter is great news for the everyday consumer. Those with mild to moderate hearing loss no longer have to make a doctor’s appointment to get hearing aids.
“I applaud the partnership between Sony and audiologists. Sony was so smart,” says Creed. Sony created one of the first over-the-counter hearing aids, with other technology companies following in its footsteps. It paved the way for a larger market.
“While I feel overly positively about [over-the-counter hearing aids], I caution consumers that while they are available without a prescription, it is still best practice to see an audiologist so that you know your hearing levels. They will make the best decision for you,” says Creed. From there a medical professional can either suggest prescription hearing aids or even over-the-counter.
“OTC hearing aids will help with cost and accessibility. However, they will still be very expensive.” Creed hopes that the cost will eventually go down, making over-the-counter hearing aids even more accessible to the public.