Are Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids Right for You?

man about to place a hearing aid behind and in his ear

New over-the-counter hearing aids have garnered a lot of media attention. Might these lower-cost options work for your hearing loss—and as a first step toward healthy aging?

Over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids are designed for adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. This article will help you identify if you or your loved ones are candidates for OTC hearing aids, and if so, what you need to know. And if you are not a candidate for OTCs, this article will point you toward a path you can take instead.

The OTCs: Game changers!

Today, almost 30 million American adults need hearing help, but only seven percent of adults over age 45 had used a hearing aid in 2019, according to the National Institutes of Health. And in 2018, only 18 percent of adults aged 70 and older had used hearing aids.

With a lower price point and easier buying process—no doctor visit or prescription needed—an OTC may help you begin to get comfortable with treating your hearing loss. This is important for two reasons. First, hearing loss often worsens with age, so it’s important to make hearing health part of your ongoing care. Second, the longer hearing loss goes untreated, the more serious its potential impact on your overall health.

Who is a candidate for OTCs?

To determine if over-the-counter hearing aids are a good option, it’s important to understand the difference between levels of hearing loss. The distinctions are more gray than black and white, but the guidelines below should help you see where your hearing loss falls on the spectrum.

Mild-to-moderate hearing loss sounds like…

  • Struggling to hear the television or radio
  • Not understanding what someone is saying from another room
  • Feeling tired after striving to hear
  • Experiencing problems hearing in noisy situations, like restaurants

Moderate-to-severe hearing loss sounds like…

  • Not understanding speech in quiet settings
  • Not hearing loud noises
  • Turning the TV up so loud that others complain
  • Being told by others that you have a hearing problem

If your hearing loss has progressed to the moderate-to-severe range, an over-the-counter hearing aid probably won’t be enough for you. Consider seeing a hearing care professional, like an audiologist. Audiology exams are sometimes covered by Medicare, though hearing aids themselves are not. Some Medicare Advantage Plans include a hearing aid benefit.

I think OTCs might help me. Now what?

In addition to considering your level of hearing loss, it’s important to think about your lifestyle and the level of support you need.

tech persona - confident using technologyWhich persona are you?

If you are confident using technology, a self-fitting hearing aid might work best for you. Self-fitting hearing aids are more customizable, and they need to be paired with an app. They can be more expensive and complicated to use but can be programmed to your specific hearing needs.

non-tech persona - often need help with technologyIf you often need help with technology, a preset hearing aid may be right for you. Preset hearing aids come with only a few built-in options–sometimes only a volume control. But they’re simpler to use.

About those options …

The number of styles, features, and options available in the OTC market can seem overwhelming. Here are some things to consider so that your OTC can help you when and where you need it:

  • If you’re straining to understand calls on your smartphone or relying on the speaker option, an OTC model that streams calls from your smartphone to your hearing aids might help you.
  • If you need help hearing in public places like theaters and churches, a telecoil will connect you to assistive listening systems like hearing loops. Currently, the only OTCs with telecoils are Lexie Lumens, but many prescription hearing aids have a telecoil option.
  • If you need help hearing in noisy places like restaurants, noise-canceling features or directional microphones may help.

Read the box carefully before you buy.

If you’re still unsure, visit the manufacturer or store website. Some OTCs stream calls or media, and some can stream both. You may need a smartphone, accessory, or an app even to adjust the volume on some OTCs. Some brands, like Jabra, offer support as part of their service model, too. Be sure to take time to choose the hearing aids that work best for you.

Whatever hearing aid you choose, give yourself time to make it work. Try the hearing aids in different situations to make the most of your trial period, which is usually about 30‒45 days. If you are having trouble with your new OTC hearing aid, consider visiting a hearing care provider for help.

Where can I find OTCs?

In Washington state, over-the-counter hearing aids are available at big box stores such as Best Buy, Walgreens, and Rite Aid. You can find dozens of OTC hearing aids online, too.

Hearing loss can harm healthy aging

The stakes are high for not treating your hearing loss. Untreated hearing loss—even mild —is linked to an increased risk of falls, anxiety, depression, isolation, reduced work performance, lower earnings, relationship problems, and even cognitive decline.

Hearing aids can help reduce these health risks and keep you engaged with your community, friends and family, and work.

Hear what you’ve been missing

Now is a terrific time to explore how hearing aids might help you not only hear better but take a big step toward aging well and improving your overall health.

And remember, new hearing aids with improved features and high-tech options come to market every year, offering fresh hope for millions of people with hearing loss.

To better understand hearing aid options, how hearing aids work, and the types, styles, and features to look for, visit HLAA-WA’s “Hearing Aids 101” webpage. For more information on OTCs, HLAA offers excellent information on their website including a link to information from the FDA.

Cheri PerazzoliContributor Cheri Perazzoli serves as president of the Hearing Loss Association of America—Washington State. The HLAA-WA mission is to open the world of communication through information, education, support, and advocacy.

This is the second of three AgeWise articles from HLAA-WA (see “New Legislation Helps Older People with Hearing Loss in Washington State” in the November 2023 issue. The final article will focus on the connection between hearing loss and dementia risk, and how treating hearing loss can help.

This article appeared in the December 2023 issue of AgeWise King County.

Medical Issues That Need Treatment

If you experience any of these issues with your ears, see a doctor—preferably an Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) specialist:

  • Your ear was injured or deformed in an accident.
  • You saw blood, pus, or fluid coming out of your ear in the past six months
  • Your ear feels painful or uncomfortable
  • You have a lot of ear wax, or you think something could be in your ear
  • You get really dizzy or have a feeling of spinning or swaying (called vertigo)
  • Your hearing changed suddenly in the past six months
  • Your hearing gets worse, then gets better again
  • You have worse hearing in one ear
  • You hear ringing or buzzing in only one ear

Editor’s note: The nonprofit National Council on Aging provides recommendations in “6 Best Over-the-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aids of 2023” (11/15/2023); however, you are encouraged to shop around and ask lots of questions to find the hearing aid that is right for you.

Note: Sudden severe hearing loss is always a medical emergency. Seek medical care immediately.