Hearing loss is pretty common, and yet less than 20% of people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually use one, according to statistics from the Hearing Loss Association of America. The average person with hearing loss goes seven years between noticing their hearing loss and actually seeking help. So the FDA’s new rule about hearing aids will likely make the gadgets more accessible to more people. The new rule creates a category of over-the-counter hearing aids that can be sold in pharmacies and online. (Prescription hearing aids are still available from a professional, as always.) The rule goes into effect in mid-October, 2022.
Hearing loss can affect many areas of life. If you can’t hear well, and haven’t taken steps to make communication easier between yourself and other people (like getting a hearing aid, or through other means like learning sign language), you’re more likely to experience loneliness in your social life, trouble learning or communicating at school or work, relationship issues, mental health issues, and more.
Over-the-counter hearing aids will be cheaper and easier to access
One big advantage of over-the-counter hearing aids is cost. Prescription hearing aids run thousands of dollars per pair (the White House estimates $5,000 on average), plus the costs of the multiple appointments needed for exams and for fitting the devices, which a pharmacist and audiologist point out here are usually not covered by insurance. Over-the-counter hearing aids are expected to cost $300 to $600 each.
Another is availability. To get prescription hearing aids, you have to visit a professional, often an audiologist. Audiologists’ offices are often located in areas with younger, higher-income populations than the general population. In other words, many people with hearing loss don’t have easy access to a specialist who can prescribe hearing aids—especially people with hearing loss who are older, lower-income, and more likely to be people of color. By contrast, 90% of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy.
The price tag on over-the-counter hearing aids is still steep, but they will now require a lot less money, travel, and time for appointments than prescription hearing aids.
What is the difference between over-the-counter and prescription hearing aids?
If you have severe hearing loss, you’ll still need to get prescription hearing aids. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders recommends over-the-counter hearing aids only for adults with mild or moderate hearing loss. They say this may include you if you feel like sounds around you are muffled, or if you have trouble understanding conversations when there’s a lot of background noise.
On the other hand, if you have trouble understanding people even in a quiet setting, or if you can barely hear loud noises, your hearing loss is likely to be more severe than what an over-the-counter hearing aid can help with.
You should also seek medical care if your hearing loss happened suddenly, if you have pain or fluid in your ear, if your hearing loss occurred alongside dizziness (vertigo), or if you have a difference in hearing between your two ears. In these cases, the hearing loss may be a symptom of a larger medical issue, and a hearing aid by itself won’t necessarily help.
It’s also important to know about the potential drawbacks of over-the-counter hearing aids. They may not be as good quality as the professional type, and they likely won’t be able to be customized and adjusted as precisely as an audiologist can do with a set of prescription hearing aids. Audiologist Mark Hedrick tells news station KLTV that if you try an over-the-counter hearing aid and it doesn’t work well for you, that doesn’t mean that hearing aids in general don’t work, just that you may need the professional kind and should consider getting evaluated.
Your brain also needs time to get used to wearing the hearing aid. If your vision is bad, you can keep a pair of glasses in a drawer and they’ll work just fine on the occasions you put them on. Hearing aids, by contrast, need to be worn regularly for your brain to learn to process the sounds from them.
If you do buy an over-the-counter hearing aid and find that it’s not working well for you, you may need a different model or you may realize that you need the prescription kind after all. The FDA recommends hanging on to your receipt, and making sure you know the terms of the return policy and warranty.