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Hearing loss—also known as hearing impairment—is defined as a total or partial inability to hear in one or both ears. It affects approximately 20 percent of Americans and is the third most common physical condition after arthritis and heart disease. Hearing loss can be classified as mild, moderate, severe or profound and may be caused by:

  • A ruptured eardrum
  • Aging
  • An object lodged in the ear
  • Conditions that affect the inner or middle ear
  • Earwax buildup
  • Exposure to loud noise (suddenly or over time)
  • Infection
  • Trauma to the ear or head

Hearing aids are the best way to treat hearing loss and a huge quality of life boost to those who use them. Likely beginning in 2020, people with hearing loss will be able to get hearing aids without a prescription and without visiting an audiologist or other licensed hearing professional. But is that a good idea?

What is an OTC hearing aid?

OTC hearing aids are devices that can be purchased directly from a retailer by adult patients that have mild to moderate hearing loss. The FDA’s new regulations are expected to be released in the first quarter of 2020, although they may be delayed until August or later.

These devices save customers costs by removing the requirement that they be dispensed by a licensed hearing professional. Although the cost is lower (though at up to $1,000 per pair, they may still be out of reach for many patients), a licensed hearing professional such as an audiologist is a crucial part of selecting the right hearing aid, getting it to fit and programming it correctly. 

OTC hearing aids are not to be confused with personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), which are intended for those with normal hearing to amplify ALL sound (e.g., a hunter listening for deer in the woods). PSAPs are not intended to be—or even permitted to be marketed as—a solution for hearing loss. In fact, PSAPs can make hearing loss worse if they’re not used carefully.

Why are OTC hearing aids being developed?

These devices have become available thanks to advances in technology within the industry that allow hearing aids to be linked with smart devices. This requires patients to manage and make decisions about their hearing health on their own. They are perceived akin to reading glasses found in stores, but fitting and programming hearing aids is much more complex than putting on a pair of glasses.

So, are OTC hearing aids a good idea?

Though the idea of a more cost-effective, patient-centered hearing option may seem appealing, there are some potentially serious drawbacks. The ability to hear is an extremely complicated biological process, with a number of factors that can contribute to its loss. It has been suggested by some audiology organizations and professionals that:

  • OTC hearing aids are for a narrow set of patients—specifically, those with (usually self-diagnosed) mild or moderate hearing loss. It is helpful to remember that hearing loss is progressive, and what may be mild hearing impairment today could become severe in the near future. People who buy OTC hearing aids without seeing a hearing professional may not be able to recognize the progression of their hearing loss until their OTC hearing aids stop being effective. 

One-size-fits-all OTC hearing aids don’t work for everyone and may actually damage hearing further

  • Poorly-fitting hearing aids may not work properly and give patients the impression the hearing aids won’t work for them. A licensed hearing professional can more effectively fit hearing aids to each individual patient.
  • Hearing aids are designed to be programmed to fit the individual needs of each patient and therefore must be done by a professional, which the OTC option does not offer. OTC hearing aids—often manufactured by companies not traditionally operating in or familiar with the hearing aid market—purport to be self-programming, but without training, it can be difficult for patients to know if they’ve programmed their devices correctly. 
  • Even with the help of technology, patients may be unable to effectively self-diagnose their hearing issues. Free online tests are a poor substitute for a battery of professional audiometry exams
  • Lack of hearing improvement through the use of OTC hearing aids can contribute to the development of dementia in older patients. A large 2019 study suggests even small amounts of hearing loss are linked to cognitive decline

In short, OTC hearing aids seem like a good idea in theory, but it remains to be seen if they are truly effective in practice. For more information about hearing aid options, speak to an audiologist.

Come to the Hearing Specialists

At Sonora Hearing Care, our experts are the leaders in the treatment, diagnosis and continued care of hearing difficulties. From evaluation to implant testing and mapping, we are committed to providing the best care possible in a warm, inviting environment.

To schedule an appointment with one of our specialists, contact us today.