Illustration of a doctor explaining a hearing aid to a mother and son

Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids Have Hit the Market

What Does This Mean for Consumers?

Over 37 million American adults have difficulty hearing, but only one in four adults that would benefit from a hearing aid have ever used one. According to a recent “The New York Times” article, health experts consider hearing loss a comorbidity as “untreated hearing loss can contribute to cognitive decline and depression in older people.” 

Hearing loss is permanent but can be preventable with the proper care, so why do 75% of people still choose to go without treatment? 

The two most significant factors that prevent individuals from pursuing treatment are cost and accessibility. Joe Hernandez for NPR notes that the device itself is typically only a third of the price a person spends to get a hearing aid. Exams, appointments, and fittings also account for much of the expense. In addition, hearing aids are not covered by Medicare and most insurance policies (outside of a few policy add-ons) as these devices are considered non-essential. This can leave patients with an average medical bill upwards of $5,000 – an unattainable cost for those on a limited income. 

Accessibility also plays a huge role when it comes to using hearing aids. Quality healthcare options are not available in every community, and prescription hearing aids can only be attained after exams at a hearing clinic. This disproportionately affects already marginalized communities and leads to further economic, social, and physical disadvantages. 

Over-The-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aids 

So what exactly are OTC hearing aids, and how do they differ from prescription hearing aids? 

OTC hearing aids are devices designed to treat mild to moderate hearing loss and are available to consumers without a health screening by an audiologist or healthcare provider. Most importantly, for consumers with hearing loss, they are significantly less expensive and much more accessible than traditional prescription hearing aids. 

Why Did the FDA Approve OTC Hearing Aids? 

Although the availability of over-the-counter hearing aids only recently went into effect in October of 2022, the push for more affordable options has been a long time coming. Advocates first submitted a proposal to the FDA in 2016 to approve over-the-counter hearing aid options for adults. 

With the new ruling currently in effect, the FDA strives to make hearing aids more accessible and less cost-prohibitive for the average American. The hope is that with increased competition in the market, hearing aid manufacturers will be inspired to provide consumers with more options and continued innovation for increasingly better products as well.  

Pros and Cons of OTC Hearing Aids 

Over-the-counter hearing aids provide a number of advantages over traditional prescription aids. 

Benefits include: 

  • Affordability: OTC hearing aids are significantly less expensive as exams, and fitting appointments are not required to acquire the hearing aid, and there are options available that start at $99. 
  • Accessible: OTC aids are available for purchase online or at stores such as Best Buy, Walgreens, or CVS, giving more communities access to affordable healthcare options. 
  • Smart Technology: Some OTC options have smartphone capabilities to control volume and access remote healthcare support. OTC hearing aids also use the same technology that prescription aids use, and the FDA regulates both. 

Drawbacks include: 

  • Not recommended for severe hearing issues: OTC hearing aids are only recommended for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. They cannot treat adults who struggle with severe hearing loss. 
  • Less Customizable: OTC hearing aids are not customized for your hearing needs and require self-fitting. You might have to test out several different options before finding the device that works best for you. 

Prescription Hearing Aids

In contrast, prescription hearing aids are designed to treat patients who experience mild to severe hearing loss. Benefits include: 

  • Customizable: Prescription aids are fitted to your specific hearing needs and ear and, because of this, have the potential to provide maximum health benefits.  
  • Healthcare Support: By definition, prescription hearing aids provide access to an audiologist who can answer all your concerns and questions. Your provider can also help you pick a device that best fits your hearing needs. 
  • Recommended for all stages of hearing loss

Drawbacks include: 

  • Price: The average price of a prescription hearing aid is $4,600 and can go as high as $8,000. 
  • Accessibility: Prescription devices are only available at hearing clinics and require an exam plus a fitting appointment. This disproportionally affects communities that have limited access to healthcare resources. 

Are There Any Dangers to Using OTC Hearing Aids? 

There are some concerns that over-the-counter hearing aids could allow people to become lackadaisical about getting yearly hearing evaluations. Self-diagnosing your hearing issues with OTC aids could also cause more damage in the long run. 

As a consumer, it is crucial to research and become familiar with available options if you decide to take advantage of over-the-counter hearing aids. Look at warranties, customer support options, if remote access to an audiologist is available, and return policies. A 30-day return policy might not provide you with enough time to test out your device, as it can take three to four weeks to adjust to a new hearing aid. 

The National Council on Aging provides a good starting point to compare different options currently on the market by breaking hearing devices into specific categories such as Best Customer Support and Most Affordable. 

Prescription Hearing Aids vs. OTC Hearing Aids – Which is Better?

It depends! Both hearing devices have different advantages and disadvantages. What works best for you depends on various factors. It is important to educate yourself on what types of devices are available to consumers, and it is a good idea to consider scheduling an appointment with an audiologist. Health professionals will review options and recommend the best solution based on your hearing needs. 

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