November 27, 2022

Before you buy: What you need to know about over-the-counter hearing aids

We’ve seen the hype and heard the news: Over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids are now available in retail stores. The cost of the device can be thousands of dollars less than a doctor-prescribed pair.

For audiology professionals like Dr. Molly O’Hearn, an audiologist at Aurora Medical Center – Mount Pleasant, the new option offers pros and cons.

“The advantage of OTC hearing aids is that they present a more affordable and accessible option for people who need them,” says Dr. O’Hearn. Even moderate hearing loss can decrease quality of life and create social isolation, a risk factor for depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s.”

“The downside is that they don’t require a doctor’s prescription, so you miss out on the evaluation and personalized fit,” explains Dr. O’Hearn. “OTC hearing aids can be adjusted for amplification volume, but they are not personalized to the person. It’s like buying a pair of ‘reader’ glasses off the shelf for vision loss. They will work for some situations, but you won’t get a custom lens customized for you.

Among adults age 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three have ever used them, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Three qualifying factors determine whether you are a candidate for OTC hearing aids. You must be an adult over the age of 18, and you must have the ability to self-adjust aids as needed. Most importantly, your hearing loss must be mild to moderate. “If you have a more severe hearing loss, it could end up being a waste of money and a source of frustration.”

A good first step before buying OTC hearing aids is to get a hearing test. “We recommend that you review and evaluate your hearing before making the purchase,” says Dr. O’Hearn. “You will learn if you are a good candidate for OTC aids or if you need a prescription hearing aid. The test will reveal problems with pitch and frequency, not just volume, and will give you a baseline for your hearing that can be monitored over time.”

Hearing evaluations take 30-40 minutes, are easy to schedule, and are often covered by health insurance. A test can also indicate underlying health problems that should be checked by a doctor, such as infections or tumors. Anyone with sudden hearing loss, pain or discomfort in the ears, vertigo or severe dizziness should see a doctor immediately.

Hearing aid insurance coverage may vary. Some plans cover the full cost and some plans cover nothing. This is where OTC hearing aids can help those with mild to moderate hearing loss. If you choose to try them, Dr. O’Hearn recommends asking if the device comes with a trial period. Otherwise, you won’t be able to return them if they don’t work for you.

For more information and to schedule your appointment, visit Advocate Aurora Hearing Services.

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