Over the Counter Hearing Aids: Are You Taking a Chance?

Pharmacy drugstore blur abstract background with medicine and over the counter hearing aids on shelves

Do you remember those gallon buckets of ice cream you used to find at grocery stores? (Let’s be honest–sometimes you still look for them, right?) As a kid, they were the best thing ever because they promised a whole gallon of ice cream–that’s a lot of frozen custard and high-fructose corn syrup!

But as you grow up, you start to get a little more particular. You start going for the more specialized ice cream: the Haagen-Daaz, the Tillamook, the Ben & Jerry’s. Suddenly, those smaller containers are the ones that are enticing.

Still–if you’re hosting a big dinner party, you’re likely to spring for those generic Kemp’s ice cream buckets. Which means that each kind of ice cream has its own unique strengths and drawbacks. Generic is good in some circumstances–but you may want more specialized ice cream in other circumstances.

Of course, we’re also talking about hearing aids here. Are new over-the-counter hearing aids any good? Well, it’s a lot like that ice cream: it depends on what your goals are.

Hearing loss can have serious impacts

Hearing loss can have a significant impact on your everyday activities. When you have untreated hearing loss, you can experience social isolation–it’s harder to carry on even simple conversations, so you avoid situations where you encounter other people who may want to talk to you.

Which means you find yourself estranged from your family and friends. You even avoid the cashier at the grocery store. It’s lonely. (And it can lead to a faster cognitive decline as you age.)

So not only are you missing out on conversations with your loved ones (making holidays and birthdays much less fun, for example), but you have other health issues to worry about too!

How do over-the-counter hearing aids work?

Given the damage that hearing loss can cause, it’s easy to see the appeal in hearing aids that are easy to purchase.

By their nature, over-the-counter hearing aids are designed to be convenient. Instead of going to see a hearing specialist and getting fitted for hearing aids, you just walk into your local pharmacy. You pick up a pair of these devices, pay for them, and head home. Once they’re in your ears, they function to amplify the sound around you.

This can have a profoundly positive impact on your life.

In some cases over the counter hearing aids can work

Over-the-counter hearing aids began appearing on store shelves in late 2022, after the Food and Drug Administration made rule changes that allowed for their wider distribution. The thinking was that if hearing aids were more readily available, you’d end up with fewer people who had untreated hearing loss.

It’s never been difficult to get a prescription hearing aid–but it is a process. And sometimes, that process can keep people away. For people who aren’t quite ready to make that leap, over-the-counter hearing aids can be a good alternative. But over-the-counter hearing aids were never designed to take the place of their prescription counterparts.

Unfortunately, this means that consumers now bear some of the burden of knowing when OTC hearing aids are a good fit (and when they aren’t).

What’s the difference between over-the-counter and prescription hearing aids?

In general, OTC hearing aids are not quite as powerful, capable, or customizable as prescription hearing aids. They will also not fit quite as well–and they won’t be customized to your needs.

So, are over-the-counter hearing aids any good at all? Well, yes–in certain cases. An OTC hearing aid may work best for you if:

  • If you’re never going to get your hearing checked. (You absolutely should. But we also acknowledge that some people just never will.) An OTC hearing aid is generally better than no hearing aid at all.
  • You have very simple or early-stage hearing loss. These devices are great for very mild or moderate hearing loss.
  • You’ve checked with your hearing specialist–and they recommend using an OTC hearing aid. (Hopefully your hearing specialist will even recommend which style or type–and what settings will work best.)
  • You want a spare pair to use for emergencies.

Usually, OTC hearing aids are sold with certain presets already in place. Some devices are good for low-frequency hearing loss; others might be good for high-frequency hearing loss. (This is why it’s good to know more about your own hearing loss before you purchase any hearing aid–OTC or not).

When OTC hearing aids are not a good fit

So, what are the disadvantages of over-the-counter hearing aids? Are there side effects of over the counter hearing aids?

Well, let’s just say that OTC hearing aids aren’t a good fit for everyone in every situation (just like generic ice cream). In general, OTC hearing aid may not be the right solution for you if:

  • You’re only interested in OTC hearing aids because of perceived cost savings. First, OTC hearing aids are often nearly as expensive as their prescription-only counterparts.
  • Second, a less expensive hearing aid that does not adequately treat your hearing loss probably isn’t worth the money you paid for it.
  • You don’t know exactly which hearing aid to purchase: For some people with hearing loss, the wrong hearing aids can actually damage your ears. (It’s like the equivalent of wearing really loud earbuds.)
  • You need to hear in complex or noisy environments. Most prescription hearing aids can be customized depending on what you need to hear and where you need to hear it.
  • You have more profound hearing loss. While OTC hearing aids can be good for mild and moderate hearing loss, severe hearing loss will need something more powerful and more refined.
  • Your hearing aids don’t fit well. Sometimes, you may need something with a custom fit–which is only possible with a prescription hearing aid.

What are the risks of over-the-counter hearing aids? In general, if you aren’t a good fit for OTC hearing aids, you could be throwing some money away or make your hearing loss worse.

See a hearing specialist either way

OTC hearing aids are a good fit for some people and prescription hearing aids a good fit for others. But either way, seeing a hearing specialist can help make your hearing aids work better.

That’s because knowing more about your hearing loss will help you find a better treatment. Your hearing specialist can help guide you toward the best hearing aid for your symptoms, whether it’s OTC or prescription.

In the same way, your hearing specialist can help you better adapt to a new pair of hearing aids–and get the most out of the technology.

In that way, you can think of hearing specialists as kind of like chocolate sauce: no matter what kind of ice cream you’re eating, chocolate sauce makes it way, way better.

If you think you have hearing loss and want to see if OTC hearing aids are right for you, get your hearing checked by a hearing professional.

Find one here.

Want more information?

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