What to Know About Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids

Hearing loss can affect any age group. Exposure to loud noises, traumatic injuries, medical conditions or genetic traits may contribute to conditions that make it difficult to hear.

Hearing problems are especially common for people over the age of 65. The National Institute on Ageing says about one-third of older Americans have hearing loss that comes with advanced years. Hearing aids are a common treatment, but only 20% of people who would benefit use them

“They don't think (limited hearing) is a big deal,” said Robin Tellez, a board-certified audiologist and manager of University Health’s Hearing and Balance Services. “A lot of times we see with our adults, the spouse gets them to go for a checkup because they’re tired of the TV being too loud or they notice more struggles.”

Signs of Hearing Loss

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, cranking up the volume on your TV or media device is just one sign of hearing loss. Others include:

  • Shouting or talking loudly
  • Asking others to repeat what they have said
  • Being unable to hear when there is more than once source of sound in a room 
  • The inability to hear a high-pitched sound, like a dripping faucet 

The consequences of not getting treatment can be serious. Studies show that people with diminished hearing are at greater risk for memory loss and dementia. They are more likely to suffer from depression, isolation, falls or driving accidents because they do not hear what’s going on around them.  

Treating Hearing Loss

While hearing aids can help many communicate more effectively again, they are just one treatment for hearing loss. 

That’s where a trained audiologist with specialized equipment and expertise comes in.

“A first step to finding the best treatment would be to talk to your primary care doctor because some insurances might require a referral to see an audiologist,” Tellez said.

The audiologist can determine the level of hearing loss, potential causes and the best treatment options. If the recommendation is for hearing aids, an audiologist can guide you through the detailed process that now includes new choices. 

Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids Cut Costs But Pose Challenges 

In August 2022, the FDA gave approval for individuals aged 18 or older to buy hearing aids directly from retailers without a prescription or medical exam. The goal of approving over-the-counter hearing aids was to lower the cost that creates a financial barrier for many who would benefit. 

While some Medicare Advantage Plans cover hearing aids and exams, traditional Medicare for seniors does not cover hearing aid services. Out-of-pocket costs can be expensive: an estimated $1,000 - $6,000 for each hearing aid. Eliminating the cost of an exam, a doctor visit and follow-up fittings will help with the bottom line, but Tellez cautions that the patient may end up with devices that do not provide the help they need. 

“You can't just pop in hearing aids or an over-the-counter device and expect your hearing is going to go back to the way it was when you were 18,” Tellez said. “Your brain has to learn to hear in a different way and go through what we consider an acclimatization period because now the sound is amplified.”

Factors to Consider when Choosing Hearing Aids

  • The style of hearing aids you prefer – devices that fit behind the ear, entirely in the ear canal or inside the outer ear
  • Whether the cost includes a fitting adjustment from a qualified professional
  • The extra cost for technology upgrades like Bluetooth connectivity that allows you to link your hearing aids to your phone 
  • The choice between a device with rechargeable or disposable batteries
  • Whether the hearing aid purchase includes a warranty and coverage for any needed repairs

Tellez says Texas law requires the audiologist or hearing professional fitting the hearing aid to give patients a 30-day period to tryout their devices and return them if they are not satisfied.

Over-the-counter companies do not have this requirement. 

An audiologist or hearing care professional can guide you through the process of determining whether hearing aids are the best treatment. Cost matters for most of us, but so does the need to make purchasing decisions based on a good hearing evaluation and fitting.

Hearing and Balance at University Health

University Health Hearing and Balance Services has additional information on diagnosing and treating hearing problems.

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