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What are over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids?

Over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids are a new category of hearing aids that consumers can buy directly, without visiting a hearing health professional. These devices can help adults with mild to moderate hearing loss but are not meant for children or adults who have more severe hearing loss. If you have more severe hearing loss, OTC hearing aids might not be able to amplify sounds at high enough levels to help you. 

OTC hearing aids are an alternative to prescription hearing aids, which are currently only available from hearing health professionals, such as audiologists, ENT's (ear, nose, and throat doctors), and hearing aid specialists. The hearing health professionals fit you for a hearing aid, adjusts the device based on your hearing loss, and provide other services and aftercare.

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Where can you find OTC hearing aids?

OTC hearing aids are for adults with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss. You will be able to buy OTC hearing aids as soon as mid-October 2022 directly in stores and online, where prescription hearing aids are not available. You will have to fit them yourself, unfortunately, and you may not be able to control and adjust the devices in ways that users of prescription hearing aids can. Some OTC hearing aids might not look like prescription hearing aids at all, instead some may be bulkier and more visible than traditional hearing aids. 

If you have trouble hearing conversations in quiet settings such as cars or trucks, noisy appliances, or loud music—consult a hearing health professional immediately. These are signs that you may have more severe hearing loss and that OTC hearing aids won’t work well for you. A hearing health professional can help you determine if a prescription hearing aid or other device can help you. 

Will OTC hearing aids help with Tinnitus? 

To answer this, first we must understand what Tinnitus is. What causes Tinnitus, and how it's treated. Tinnitus is also classified as being either subjective (heard only by the patient) or objective (can be heard by an impartial observer, such as an audiologist). Subjective tinnitus is most common.

What is Tinnitus?

Ringing in the ear, or tinnitus, is a widespread condition that affects more than 50 million Americans. Tinnitus can also be a humming, buzzing, or other sounds in your ears that does not have an outside source. The perception of sound comes from within your head. For most people, tinnitus is a constant sound. 

What causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is categorized as being either pulsatile or non-pulsatile (meaning the tinnitus sounds are in rhythm with the sound of your pulse). This is often caused by abnormal blood flow in the arteries of the neck or the ear. Some possible causes of pulsatile tinnitus include:

  • Fluid in the middle ear

  • Ear infections

  • High blood pressure

  • Head and neck tumors

  • Blocked arteries

Non-pulsatile tinnitus is the most common. It can be caused by a variety of conditions including:

  • Presbycusis (age-related hearing loss)

  • Noise exposure

  • Impacted earwax

  • Otosclerosis (stiffening of the bones in the middle ear)

  • Meniere’s disease

  • TMJ disorders

  • Ototoxic medications

  • Thyroid conditions

  • Head or neck trauma

  • Acoustic neuromas

Tinnitus is not a disease–it is a symptom.

How is Tinnitus treated?

Tinnitus does not have a cure, but there are actions and treatments that make it less bothersome. Effective treatment depends on underlying conditions contributing to the ringing in your ears. Sometimes, simply removing built-up earwax or changing medications can decrease symptoms. Some people can benefit from biofeedback or sound therapy techniques designed to cover up the ringing noise. Smartphone apps that simulate sounds in nature are gaining popularity. While the older options like white noise machines, fans, air conditioners and humidifiers are easy to use.

Ear-level maskers and tinnitus retraining devices, tuned to your specific tinnitus perceptions, are fast-evolving techniques that have proven successful for many patients.

So, will OTC hearing aids help with Tinnitus? 
The answer is no. Unfortunately, OTC hearing aids will not bring relief to those who suffer with Tinnitus. We are all tempted to save money when we can, especially on a major purchase like hearing aids. Sometimes, if our budget leaves us no other option, going the “cheaper” route is better than doing nothing. But, we don’t say that without warnings. ​

Have an audiologist test your hearing. Audiologists have the clinical training to know when you have age-related hearing loss or something more serious, such as a hearing nerve tumor, a damaged eardrum, or other medical issue that should be addressed before proceeding with hearing aids.

Understanding your hearing needs, especially for services after receiving your hearing aids. Big box stores and online retailers are in the business of “selling units.” They will be happy to sell a product to you, but follow-up care and servicing your hearing aids will not fit their model for making money. An audiologist will provide a sensible service plan to ensure your hearing aids are well taken care of to maximize their life and usefulness–which brings me to the last point. ​

Hearing aids must be programmed to address your specific hearing needs (that’s why you need a hearing test). At least 90% of new hearing aids need adjustments after the initial fitting. Your audiologist is able to do this during follow-up care and can make physical changes to the hearing aids if there is an issue with fit or size. OTC hearing aids are not capable of these adjustments. 

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Some ear problems need medical treatment. If you have any of the following, please see a licensed physician promptly:

  • Fluid, puss, or blood coming out of your ear within the previous 6 months.

  • Pain or discomfort in your ear.

  • A history of excessive ear wax or suspicion that something is in your ear canal.

  • Episodes of vertigo (severe dizziness) with hearing loss.

  • Sudden hearing loss or quickly worsening hearing loss.

  • Hearing loss that has gotten more and then less severe within the last 6 months.

  • Hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing) in only one ear, or a noticeable difference in how well you can hear in each ear.

Be a wise consumer and advocate for yourself. Always remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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