Prescription vs. over-the-counter hearing aids

General Wellness
Senior Health
Photo of older man with younger woman laughing

Your family is over for dinner one night and you find yourself asking your niece to repeat herself more than a few times. It's frustrating because you've never had trouble hearing before. But you're not alone; hearing loss affects people of all ages, and it's often a common part of getting older. Thankfully, hearing aids can help, no matter how severe your hearing loss might be.

Today's hearing aids are so discrete that many people won't even notice that you're wearing them. And they're pretty easy to buy, especially with over-the-counter hearing aid options.

"Though over-the-counter devices may be a great option for some, they're not for everyone," says Jessica Bell, AuD, FAAA at Riddle Hospital's Audiology and Hearing Aid Center.

Let's compare prescription hearing aids and over-the-counter hearing aids, so you can choose the best option for your needs.

Benefits of prescription hearing aids

If you've brought up your hearing challenges with your doctor, have seen a specialist and went through a few hearing tests, they might have recommended you use hearing aids. There are many benefits to prescription hearing aids, including that they're prescribed to your unique hearing levels based on things like sound level and pitch.

"Prescription hearing aids also offer advanced features like noise reduction and speech enhancement," says Dr. Bell. "And they can be custom fit to your ear, which means they'll be more comfortable, secure and discrete."

When you get a prescription for hearing aids, you'll also have professional follow-up appointments. These are dedicated to fine-tuning your hearing aids and allow your doctor to take care of regular, general maintenance. And with different styles available—like behind the ear and custom, in-ear hearing aids—an audiologist can help you navigate options to treat all ranges of hearing loss, from mild to profound.

"While prescription hearing aids are generally more expensive, there are price options available based on your needs and lifestyle," says Dr. Bell.

Benefits of over-the-counter hearing aids

If you're thinking about trying over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, there are a few things to know.

"Over-the-counter hearing aids can only be used for mild to moderate hearing loss after being diagnosed by an audiologist," says Dr. Bell.

Most OTC hearing aids have generic settings to amplify all sounds equally, and they have little to no advanced settings. Advanced settings are often needed for challenging environments, like concerts and other crowded places.

"OTC hearing aids are less expensive, but they're a 'one-size-fits-all' option," says Dr. Bell. "There are no custom, professional fittings, with most being behind-the-ear pieces that you'll fit yourself."

Why you might not be able to get OTC hearing aids

Not everyone will be eligible for OTC hearing aids. Whether you have greater than mild or moderate hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, asymmetric hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in your ears), you should meet with your doctor to discuss options to determine which hearing aids are right for you.

Other reasons why you might want to choose prescription hearing aids include:

  • Excessive cerumen (ear wax)
  • Vertigo or dizziness
  • Ear pain, drainage or fullness
  • Sudden or fluctuating hearing loss
  • Unilateral tinnitus or "roaring" tinnitus

You'll also work closely with your doctor after you're prescribed hearing aids, so you'll truly be able to understand how they're working.

The first step is getting the right hearing loss diagnosis

It's always important to work first with your doctor before trying any hearing aids on your own, because you may have an underlying condition that needs treatment.

"In rare cases, some of the above symptoms can be caused by conditions such as an acoustic neuroma or Ménière's disease," says Dr. Bell. "Others may need to be treated with medications or surgery."

A full audiologic evaluation should be completed by an audiologist as a first step.

Comprehensive care for hearing loss

You don't have to live with hearing loss. We offer comprehensive audiological evaluations to determine your hearing levels and customized hearing aids that are programmed for your specific needs.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, find a provider online or call or call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654).