Lexie Hearing Aids are now available at Walgreens. They cost about $800 a pair. (Photos by Kaylie Pomichalek)

FDA approval of over-the-counter hearing aids offers hard-of-hearing people a more accessible and affordable alternative to traditional hearing aids.

The change went into effect Oct. 17 and allows adults with mild or moderate hearing loss to purchase hearing aids directly from stores or online retailers. So where do the savings come in? For one thing, you don’t medical exam, a prescription or a fitting adjustment by an audiologist, according to the FDA.

A study from the American Journal of Public Health found a majority of people with hearing loss have mild hearing loss, with moderate hearing loss more prominent in older people.

About 15% of people in South Carolina suffer from some form of hearing loss, according to 2017 data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

“There are people that lose their hearing over time, and they don’t think they have hearing loss … because the loss is very gradual,” said David Bitters, president of the Hearing Loss Association of America Midlands Chapter. Bitters started to experience hearing loss himself at 3 years old.

Usually, people don’t figure out they are having problems hearing until someone else notices. Over-the-counter hearing aids — while still not cheap — may help people figure out if hearing help is something they need without having to visit a doctor, he said.

Easily accessible hearing aids also may result in people getting hearing help sooner, according to the American Academy of Audiology.

People don’t go for help “until it comes to a point where it’s really, really, bad,” Bitters said. “And that’s not good.”

The average person waits up to 10 years before seeking professional help for hearing loss symptoms, according to the audiologist group. It said untreated hearing loss can be linked to an increased risk of depression, falls and an earlier onset of decline in their thought process.

Traditional hearing aids cost about $4,600, according to the National Council of Aging. Over-the-counter hearing aids cost about $1,600.

Different versions are available at CVS, Walgreens and some grocery store pharmacies in the Midlands. But as of Oct. 18, The Carolina News and Reporter only found one brand in the Columbia area, at Walgreens.

There is still a wide variety available online.

Over-the-counter hearing aids are not perfect or meant for everyone, and there are things to consider before deciding to purchase one, Bitters said.

And experts recommend visiting a professional for a hearing test regardless of the severity of hearing loss.

Retailers and producers of over-the-counter hearing aids might have hearing tests to take online to encourage consumers to buy from them. But online tests aren’t always the most accurate and can miss medical conditions that need to be treated, audiologists say.

To vet the accuracy of some of these tests, Joan Van Leuven with the Midlands chapter of the Hearing Loss Association tested three. Each test provided different results.

Results from Best Buy and Lexie Hearing Aids showed results completely different from her professional test, Van Leuven said. The third, called the National Hearing Test, was the only one that showed results similar to those of the professional test.

“A wrong test may discourage a person to seek a better result,” Bitters said.

It’s also important to make sure whatever hearing aid you decide to purchase has a long enough return policy, Bitters said. If a hearing aid doesn’t have a long enough return policy, people may get stuck with one that doesn’t work for them and end up wasting money, he said.

Bitters recommends wearing new hearing aids all day every day for at least three weeks, since it can take some time for your brain to adjust to hearing differently.

The over-the-counter hearing aid market is still new, so there is no way of knowing what exactly will come out of it right now, Bitters said. But one goal is to provide more timely access to lower-cost devices.

“It will allow people to finally take responsibility for their hearing health,” he said.

Lexie Hearing Aids are available at the Walgreens pharmacy. People should ask a pharmacist if they are interested.

This card has information about the hearing aids. At some locations, these are part of the display.