Over-the-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aids

Discover the advantages and limitations of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids.

What are OTC hearing aids?

You may have come across the term OTC, or over-the-counter hearing aids, and wondered what it meant. OTC are a class of hearing aids, for mild to moderate hearing loss, that can be purchased in the US without a prescription or involvement of an licensed audiology professional.

This classification ruling, from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has gained significant attention, with the decision stirring up discussions among audiology professionals globally, and some questioning whether this marked the end of their role in providing hearing aids. However, for individuals with hearing difficulties, the move appears to make hearing aids more accessible, easy to self-fit, and affordable.

In this article, I will explore over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, their benefits, and when seeking professional help from an audiologist might be the better option.

What do OTC hearing aids look like?

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aids
Non-custom, over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids.

Most OTC hearing aids, available in the US, resemble the receiver in the canal (RIC) hearing aids that you find at audiology practices. Non-custom, in-the-ear devices, that look like earbuds, are also available. Many are rechargeable, though some work with disposable batteries, and a significant number are compatible with mobile phones.

Who are OTC hearing aids for?

All OTC hearing aids are designed for individuals over the age of 18, with mild to moderate hearing loss. The challenge lies in the individual determining the severity of their hearing loss, without the help of an audiologist. While apps claim to provide hearing test results, their accuracy is questionable, as audiograms need to be performed under specific conditions.

Further, while apps can give you an idea of the severity of a hearing loss, they cannot assess your overall ear health. Audiologists are able to check your outer ear health, test your middle ear functionality, and determine which audiograms and conditions require a referral to another healthcare professional. If you have concerns about your ears’ general health, don’t rely on an app!

Where can I buy OTC hearing aids?

OTC hearing aids are not currently available in the UK, although you can buy ear buds, such as Nuheara IQ Buds. These devices amplify sound but are not classed as hearing aids per se.

In the US, OTC hearing aids have been available since 2017, and can be purchased online or in store from pharmacies and big-box retailers, such as Walmart and BestBuy, by anyone aged 18 or over.

Why is the introduction of OTC hearing aids beneficial?

In the UK, only 1 in 5 people, who could benefit from hearing aids, wear them, and it takes an average of over 7 years for individuals to address their hearing loss after first noticing a problem. This indicates that the audiology profession hasn’t done enough to encourage people to wear hearing aids or make them an appealing option.

OTC hearing aids could offer a different entry point into the market, potentially increasing the number of people using NHS and private services. Those who benefit from OTC solutions might eventually seek better options, such as the advanced technology and personalised care provided by local audiologists.

What are the downsides to OTC hearing aids?

When an audiology professional assesses your hearing loss, they consider various factors to develop a personalised solution. Hearing aids might be part of the solution or not necessary at all. Professional hearing solutions often require counselling and support before and after fitting.

When using a hearing aid for the first time, the sound can be tinny and echoey. Audiologists can help determine what’s normal, support you through adjustments, and perform Real Ear Measurements (REMs) to ensure the sound you hear matches your expectations.

Moreover, OTC hearing aids are meant for mild to moderate hearing loss, which doesn’t necessarily indicate the complexity of one’s hearing difficulties. Factors such as lifestyle and how one’s brain processes sound also contribute to the appropriate solution for an individual.

Our conclusions on OTC hearing aids

OTC hearing aids have the potential to make hearing care more accessible and affordable, with more options likely to become available in the UK. This development could encourage more people who need hearing aids, but are currently not seeking help, to obtain support.

Therefore, OTC hearing aids hold promise as an affordable entry point for those wanting to experience amplification for the first time. However, they should not be considered a replacement for professionally fitted hearing solutions, and users should not expect the same results.

If you are concerned about your hearing, it’s always best consult a qualified audiologist for personalised advice and solutions tailored to your specific hearing needs.

Article by Adam Bostock

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