Over-the-counter hearing aids expand access for consumers.

Over-the-counter hearing aids expand access for consumers, but they are not for everyone
hearing aids

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made hearing aids available over-thecounter, making the devices more affordable and giving Americans a broader range of choices. “The fact that over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids can expand access for those who have hearing loss is a good thing,” says Narine Oganyan, director of audiology and speech pathology at UCLA Health. “We encourage people to pay attention to their hearing health.”

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 28.8 million American adults could benefit from using hearing aids, yet only about one-fifth of those who could benefit actually seek them, according to the FDA.

But easy access to OTC hearing aids does not mean everyone with hearing loss should immediately run to a local pharmacy or electronics store to pick up a pair. OTC hearing aids are intended for adults 18 and older with mild-to-moderate hearing loss and are available without the need for a doctor’s visit.

“Over-t he-counter hearing aids are appropriate for certain patients and are not appropriate for others,” Oganyan says. “We want to make sure that patients and consumers make informed decisions.” 

Contraindications for OTC devices include:

  • Children younger than 18.
  • People with moderately severe to profound hearing loss.
  • People with sudden hearing loss.
  • People who have fluid or blood coming from ear(s).
  • People with hearing loss or tinnitus in one ear.
  • People experiencing severe dizziness.
  • People with abnormal ear anatomy.

Traditionally, hearing aids are fitted and prescribed by a hearing specialist, such as an audiologist or a licensed hearing-aid dispenser. An individual who suspects that they have hearing loss, or has been told by loved ones that they appear to have difficulty hearing, should undergo a hearing test to determine if a hearing aid is recommended, says Gina Gracia, AuD, audiology manager at UCLA Health. Based on the individual’s test results, lifestyle, hearing needs and budget, the specialist will recommend an appropriate hearing aid, which would then be programmed specifically for the patient’s hearing deficiencies.

“A benefit of over-thecounter hearing aids is that they can provide an option for those who might otherwise disregard or postpone addressing their hearing problems.”

The cost for prescription hearing aids, which are appropriate for people w it h significant hearing loss, can be steep, ranging from $650 to more than $3,000 per ear, which is among the reasons many people who could benefit do not seek them. For people with mildto-moderate hearing loss, OTC hearing aids are available at lower price points and with differing levels of customization. Some will come with “presets” a user can choose from to help the device best fit their needs. Others will include a smartphone app to administer a hearing test that helps customize the hearing aids based on test results.

It’s unlikely that audiologists will be allowed to adjust over-the-counter hearing aids, Gracia says, so it’s important for consumers to understand what modifications are available in the model they choose, what kind of tech support exists and return-policy details.

The accessibility and lower cost of OTC hearing aids may encourage more people to address their hearing loss, Oganyan says. “A benefit of over-the-counter hearing aids is that they can provide an option for those who might otherwise disregard or postpone addressing their hearing problems. Now they have the option of walking into a store, purchasing a pair and discovering that they are getting some benefit from using these over-the-counter devices,” she says.

That initial success could lead them into an audiology or prescription hearing aiddispensing clinic for more customized help. “This may be a pathway for consumers to actually do something about a hearing problem that they may have been ignoring for years,” Oganyan says.