The effort to make hearing aids available as an over-the-counter purchase without having to get an examination or a prescription has been ongoing for years. In October 2022, that became a reality with a decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow an over-the-counter hearing aid market to open up, with certain restrictions for safety.
That’s a significant move for the roughly 25% of Americans between 65 and 74 who have hearing loss that impacts their daily life, a number that jumps dramatically at over age 75, according to the National Council on Aging. Over-the-counter hearing aids are an affordable alternative that could provide hearing benefits where none were possible before. Let’s look at how you can find and buy over-the-counter hearing aids.
What’s the difference between over-the-counter and prescription hearing aids?
So why are over-the-counter hearing aids such a big deal over hearing aids that require a prescription? The difference can be summed up in a few important points:
- Affordability: Over-the-counter hearing aids are a lot more affordable than their prescription counterparts. Prescription hearing aids can cost several thousand dollars or more, which puts them beyond the reach of those who don’t have insurance that will cover them. Over-the-counter models, on the other hand, typically start at around $800 to $1,000.
- You don’t need a hearing exam: Over-the-counter hearing aids don’t require the same exams, fitting, prescriptions, or maintenance requirements as prescription models, which can also save a lot of time and money.
- Availability: Over-the-counter hearing aid models are easier to find. You don’t have to go to a specialized hearing care clinic to purchase them. You can visit common retail websites and order them in just a few minutes if you want
- Extra features: Over-the-counter hearing aids may come with extra features for consumer use — such as Bluetooth capabilities for connecting to devices for audio playback, and app accompaniment for further customization — that prescription models may not have.
Over-the-counter hearing aid models are a bit more limited in what kind of hearing loss they can handle (their maximum sound output peak is limited compared to prescription hearing aids) and are aimed toward those with mild to moderate hearing loss, usually in adults 18 years and older. Those with more severe hearing loss should be seeking medical help and looking for prescription hearing aids instead.
Choose a hearing aid or an amplifier. An amplifier simply boosts and relays nearby sounds so they can be heard more easily. They don’t have many other hearing aid features, and are only suitable for slight hearing loss. But they are much, much less expensive than true hearing aids, usually starting at around just $50, so it’s a way to save money.
Hearing aids start at several hundred dollars and can go up to a few thousand. They have more complete tuning, customization, amplification, treble and bass settings, and more. They’re a better fit for directly addressing hearing problems that are starting to interfere with daily life.
Over-the-counter hearing aid models typically come in three different design options, each with their own advantages:
- Earbud models: These look like traditional earbuds that you might buy from Sony, Jabra, Apple, or other brands — and some are even offered by the same companies. The advantage, of course, is that it looks like you’re just wearing normal earbuds, and like today’s wireless earbuds, they are very easy to charge and use as needed.
- In-ear, low-profile models: These are designed to be as hidden as possible and are often available in skin colors to better mask them. The goal is to make it seem like they aren’t there at all. However, the small size typically means lower battery life and more limited use. They may also be more expensive.
- Behind-the-ear models: These come with a tiny earbud that’s connected by wire to a larger component that rests behind the ear. This is a more complicated, unwieldy setup that’s much more noticeable. However, you get more battery power and generally better hearing features, so they tend to be a better pick for more moderate hearing loss.
First, arrange a hearing exam with your doctor. Wait, but you just said– we know, we know, you don’t technically need a hearing exam to buy over-the-counter hearing aids, and that’s one of the advantages. But if you think you have hearing loss and you haven’t talked about it with your doctor yet, you really need to. It’s important to get a hearing exam to judge the extent of your hearing loss, and if over-the-counter models are the right choice for you. A hearing specialist may even be able to recommend certain brands or stores to try.
Next, find a retailer’s site or store that has your preferred hearing aid in stock. We suggest heading online for this step. You’ll find a lot more options in stock, and you can use regular payment methods that you may have already set up. Popular stores include:
Once you have found a pair that you want, you can simply place them in your cart like any other purchase. There are no additional hoops you are required to jump through to buy them. Note that some models may only be available online, while others may not always be in stock, so remember to check the details as you check out.
Insurance isn’t directly covering OTC hearing aids this time. However, many of the models are qualifying purchases for Flexible Spending Accounts, Health Savings Accounts, and other specialized accounts that you can use to help save money on taxes and gain other benefits.
There is no counseling for caring for ovver-the-counter hearing aid models, so read the manual carefully. Fortunately, brands like Lexie already have guides on when and how to clean your hearing aids that will apply to over-the-counter models too. Don’t use any kind of water or cleaners on your hearing aids to avoid damage. For frequent cleaning, you may want to pick up a specialized tool.