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Over-the-counter versus prescription hearing aids: Which is right for you?

We'll explain the differences between over-the-counter and prescription hearing aids to help guide you to the best option.

Pinkish behind-the-ear hearing aid
Find out if you need a prescription or OTC hearing aids. (Getty Images)

If you're experiencing hearing loss, you've likely noticed it affecting your daily life and you're ready to take the next step to get your hearing back. One option is over-the-counter hearing aids, which became accessible in October 2022 to those 18 or older with mild to moderate hearing loss. Based on a ruling by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), individuals can buy OTC hearing aids without a prescription. The other option is prescription hearing aids, which require a professional evaluation.

If you're trying to decide between OTC and prescription hearing aids, but you're not sure which type is the best option for you, there are several factors to consider, including how severe your hearing loss is and your budget.

We'll help you understand the differences between OTC and prescription hearing aids, as well as the pros and cons of both. For more, check out these nine best hearing aids, according to audiologists.

OTC hearing aids are designed for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss and can be purchased directly from stores or online without a prescription or a professional fitting, Dr. Jeffrey S. Weingarten, an otolaryngologist, tells Yahoo. Typically, OTC hearing aids are more affordable and convenient for those experiencing hearing difficulties.

On the flip side, prescription hearing aids require a hearing evaluation by an audiologist, who then designs a customized hearing aid based on your specific hearing loss, ear size and shape. Prescription aids are typically recommended for those with moderate to severe hearing loss.

Due to the individual customization and professional assessment required, prescription hearing aids can be much more costly than OTC hearing aids. However, they tend to offer more advanced features like noise reduction and Bluetooth connectivity.

"Regulatory differences also exist," Weingarten said. "Prescription hearing aids are subject to stricter controls and standards set by the FDA to ensure safety and effectiveness, whereas OTC hearing aids, while still regulated, may have more lenient standards."

If you're not sure where to start with hearing aids, you'll first need to determine how severe your hearing loss is by getting a hearing test. This can help you decide whether you'd benefit more from an OTC or prescription hearing aid. For instance, if your hearing loss is mild, you can likely go with an OTC option. But if your hearing loss is severe, you'll benefit more from a customized hearing aid.

If price is your main concern but your hearing loss is severe, talk with your doctor about whether payment plans for prescription aids are available. You should also speak with your health care provider to find out how much your insurance plan may cover and to make sure you stay within your provider's network to help keep costs down.

If you're leaning toward OTC hearing aids, the FDA advises you review the outside package labeling before you buy them. The label should include warnings for those younger than 18, hearing loss symptoms, advice for when to seek professional help or when to see a doctor and the return policy.

Here are some factors to consider if you're thinking about buying OTC hearing aids.

  • Accessible: You're easily able to buy OTC hearing aids online and at stores like Best Buy and Walgreens without a prescription.

  • Affordable: While some OTC hearing aids can cost upwards of $2,000, many are affordable and cost between $250 and $1,200 for two hearing aids. Compare that with the average cost of one prescription hearing aid, which can run between $1,000 to $3,000 per hearing device, plus the costs of the appointments.

  • No appointments needed: With OTC hearing aids, you don't have to wait weeks to get the hearing help you need.

  • One size fits all: OTC hearing aids aren't customized for your ears, so they may not feel as comfortable as a prescription hearing aid would.

  • Not designed for severe hearing loss: If you have moderate to severe hearing loss, OTC hearing aids won't be as beneficial as a hearing aid prescribed for your specific hearing needs.

  • No professional input: If you decide to go with OTC hearing aids, you won't receive the professional assessment to determine which hearing aids are best for you.

A hand holding hearing aid device.
There are multiple types of hearing aids you can choose from. (Getty Images)

See if prescription hearing aids are the best solution for you.

  • Customized: Prescription hearing aids are customized to fit your ear by taking a mold of your ear canal. They're also designed to meet your specific hearing needs.

  • Ongoing support: Prescription hearing aids come with long-term support from an ears, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or an audiologist. Weingarten says this includes thorough assessments, fittings and ongoing adjustments.

  • Advanced features: These devices often incorporate technology like advanced noise reduction, feedback cancellation and multichannel processing, Weingarten said.

  • High cost: Due to the customization of the hearing aids and the professional support you receive, the costs associated with prescription hearing aids are significantly higher than OTC hearing aids.

  • Less convenient: If you're looking for an immediate fix to your hearing loss, prescription hearing aids require more time due to customization, so you could be waiting weeks.

  • Not as accessible: You'll need an appointment with a hearing professional, which could take a while to get.

While you can get your hearing aids prescribed by a doctor or pick up a pair from a drugstore, there are four main styles you can choose from, according to the National Council on Aging.

  • Behind-the-ear: Can address any level of hearing loss but are much larger than other hearing aid styles.

  • Receiver-in-canal: Smaller and lighter than BTE hearing aids, but the receiver can deteriorate due to moisture in the ear.

  • Completely-in-canal: Smallest type of hearing aid and not as susceptible to feedback but can make your ears feel clogged because of where they rest inside the ear canal.

  • In-the-ear: Small like earbuds and can have Bluetooth capabilities but not appropriate for severe hearing loss.

For more options, check out these best rechargeable hearing aids.