Over-the-counter hearing aids are here: everything you need to know

First made available in October for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss, they’re cheaper and easier to get. Here’s a guide to who can use them and how to get them.

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Hearing aids like these are now available over-the-counter, without a doctor’s prescription.

Hearing aids like these are now available over-the-counter, without a doctor’s prescription.

Alan Youngblood / AP

It’s now a lot easier — and cheaper — for many hard-of-hearing Americans to get help.

Hearing aids can now be sold without a prescription from a specialist. Over-the-counter, or OTC, hearing aids started arriving in October at prices sometimes thousands of dollars lower than prescription hearing aids.

There are about 30 million people in the United States with hearing loss, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration, though only about 20% of those who could use a hearing aid seek help.

WHO OTC HEARING AIDS MIGHT HELP

The FDA approved OTC hearing aids for adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. That can include people who have trouble hearing phone calls or who turn up the TV loud enough that others complain.

It also can include people who have trouble understanding group conversations in noisy places.

OTC hearing aids aren’t intended for people with deeper hearing loss, which would include those who have trouble hearing louder noises, like power tools and cars. They also aren’t for people who lost their hearing suddenly or in just one ear, according to Sterling Sheffield, an audiologist who teaches at the University of Florida. Those people need to see a doctor.

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Sterling Sheffield, an assistant professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at the University of Florida, holds an over-the-counter hearing aid Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla. OTC hearing aids started hitting the market in October after the FDA approved them for adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss, and Sheffield has been testing them.

Alan Youngblood / AP

SHOULD YOU GET YOUR HEARING TESTED?

Before over-the-counter, you usually needed to get your hearing tested and buy hearing aids from a specialist. That’s no longer the case.

But it can be hard for people to gauge their own hearing. You still can see a specialist just for that test, which insurance often covers, and then buy the aids on your own. Check your coverage before making an appointment.

There also are a number of apps and questionnaires available to determine whether you need help. And some over-the-counter sellers also provide a hearing assessment or online test.

WHO’S SELLING?

Several major retailers now offer OTC hearing aids online and on store shelves.

Walgreens drugstores are selling Lexie Lumen hearing aids nationwide for $799.

Walmart offers OTC hearing aids ranging from about $200 to $1,000 a pair. Its health centers will provide hearing tests.

Best Buy has OTC hearing aids online and in nearly 300 stores. The company also offers an online hearing assessment, and employees are trained on the stages of hearing loss and how to fit the devices.

Tthere are more than a dozen manufacturers making different models of OTC hearing aids.

New devices will make up most of the OTC market as it develops, Sheffield said. Some will be hearing aids that previously required a prescription, ones that are suitable only for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

Shoppers should expect a lot of devices to enter and leave the market, said Catherine Palmer, a hearing expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Look for an OTC label on the box. Hearing aids approved by the FDA for sale without a prescription are required to be labeled OTC.

That will help you distinguish OTC hearing aids from cheaper devices sometimes labeled sound or hearing amplifiers — called a personal sound amplification product, or PSAP. Often marketed to seniors, they are designed to make sounds louder for people with normal hearing in certain environments, like hunting. And amplifiers don’t undergo FDA review.

“People really need to read the descriptions,” said Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

And check the return policy. That’s important because people generally need a few weeks to get used to them and make sure they work in the situations where they need them most.

Does the company selling OTC devices offer instructions or an app to assist with setup, fit and sound adjustments? A specialist could help, too, but expect to pay for that office visit, which insurance rarely covers.

THE COST

Most OTC hearing aids will cost between $500 and $1,500 a pair, Sheffield said. He noted that some could cost as much as $3,000.

And it’s not a one-time expense. They might have to be replaced every five years or so.

Hearing specialists say OTC prices could fall in the future. But they already are generally cheaper than prescription hearing aids, which can run more than $5,000.

Insurance coverage of hearing aids is spotty. Some Medicare Advantage plans offer coverage of devices that need a prescription. But regular Medicare does not. There are discounts available, including some offered by Medicare Advantage insurer UnitedHealthcare.

Shoppers also can pay for the devices with money set aside in health savings accounts or flexible spending accounts.

Don’t try to save money by buying just one hearing aid. People need to have the same level of hearing in both ears so they can figure out where a sound is coming from, according to the American Academy of Audiology.

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