Hearing Aids vs. Hearing Amplifiers: What’s the Difference?

Published August 22nd, 2022 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Camille Freking
Medically Reviewed:
Chris Riley

Once you’ve experienced hearing loss, you’re eager to try the available options to help you regain your ability to listen to music, enjoy conversation, and maintain a fulfilling life.

The problem is that it can be confusing to decide which is best for your particular situation.

There are numerous types of hearing loss, including sudden hearing loss and losses that only affect one ear.

We’ll discuss the types of hearing loss and how they are diagnosed. 

We’ll also discuss treatment options for hearing loss, including hearing aids and hearing amplifiers.

We’ll define them both, talk about their similarities and differences, and help give you the information you need to divide which is right for you. 

Types of Hearing Loss

There are three main types of hearing loss which explain the part of the ear that has been damaged.

Additionally, three main parts make up the ear. 

  • The Outer Ear. The outer ear includes the pinna (the visible part of the ear) and the ear canal.
  • The Middle Ear. The middle ear includes the eardrum and the three tiny bones of the inner ear, called the malleus, incus, and stapes. 
  • The Inner Ear. The inner ear includes the fluid-filled cochlea, semicircular canals, and vestibular and auditory nerves. 

All three parts of the ear must work properly for hearing to occur.

When there is damage to one or some parts, you will experience hearing loss. 

In addition, the auditory nerve must receive electrical signals from the cochlea and be able to deliver them to the brain.

The brain must be able to interpret them into what we experience as sound. 

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Hearing loss due to damage to the structures in the inner ear is called sensorineural hearing loss.

Typically, the tiny hair cells inside the cochlea that help turn sound waves into electrical signals become damaged or destroyed, resulting in hearing loss.

These specialized hair cells do not regenerate, which means that when they are gone, a portion of the hearing is lost.

Prolonged exposure to loud music, impulse sounds like fireworks or gunshots, or certain illnesses or diseases can cause this hearing loss.

If you experience sudden hearing loss (whether it is permanent or temporary), it is usually a type of sensorineural hearing loss.

Conductive Hearing Loss

This hearing loss occurs because of damage to outer or middle ear structures.

Conductive hearing loss often happens due to accidents or genetic malformations of the ear.

Temporary hearing loss is most frequently a type of conductive hearing loss caused by a blockage in the ear canal. 

Mixed Hearing Loss

In short, this type of hearing loss combines conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.

In this type of hearing loss, blockage or physical damage to the outer, middle, inner ear, or nerve pathways can worsen age-related or genetic hearing loss. 

The causes of mixed hearing loss can vary widely.

Generally, some sort of sensorineural hearing is already present, and conductive hearing loss develops in conjunction with it, making it mixed hearing loss.

Degrees of Hearing Loss

What makes a person hard of hearing or completely deaf?

These questions don’t necessarily have precise answers.

Being “legally” deaf can mean having a hearing impairment or having no use of one or both of your ears. It simply depends on the agency that is defining it. 

In general, hearing loss uses a decibel scale to measure sound.

Your degree of hearing loss depends on how loud a sound must be for you to hear it.

Normal hearing registers sounds from -10 decibels to 15 decibels. This means a sound must only be as loud as 15 decibels before you can hear it. 

Based on this scale, hearing loss is graded like this: 

  • Slight. 16-25 decibels
  • Mild. 26-40 decibels
  • Moderate. 41-55 decibels
  • Moderately Severe. 56-70 decibels
  • Severe. 71-90 decibels
  • Profound. 91+ decibels

People with severe and profound hearing loss are often considered deaf, even if they can pick up extremely loud noise. 

Treatment of Hearing Loss

A hearing loss doesn’t have to sideline you or dramatically change how you communicate with others.

New technology and advancements in the industry have enabled you to enjoy clearer, more audible hearing with very little apparatus. 

Two options for people with different stages of hearing loss include hearing aids and hearing amplifiers. 

Hearing Aids

Hearing aids amplify and change sound through a device worn over or inside the ear.

A microphone collects sound waves, and an amplifier strengthens and changes them into electrical signals.

The signals are played directly into the cochlea through a microphone.

Most commonly, hearing aids sit in or behind the ear. In the ear, hearing aids usually offer better sound clarity and do not deliver any kind of “feedback” noise like buzzing or whistling. 

Hearing aids can also sit inside the ear canal; however, these are usually reserved for people with a higher level of hearing loss. 

Hearing aids are a good solution for you if:

  • You have sensorineural hearing loss
  • An audiogram revealed your hearing loss is less than profound
  • The shape of your ear allows for fitting the aid inside or behind the ear
  • You can insert and remove the hearing aids manually

Many types of hearing aids now offer Bluetooth technology and can connect wirelessly to your phone, stereo, television, and other smart devices.

Hearing Amplifiers

Hearing amplifiers, or “over-the-counter” hearing aids, resemble hearing aids but do not require a prescription or hearing loss diagnosis.

Unlike hearing aids, they are not customizable products and do not block out background noise and help you hear more clearly in noisy environments. 

Hearing amplifiers amplify sound; kind of like turning up the overall volume of your current surroundings.

These can be helpful in certain situations, like hunting or listening for bird calls. 

Unlike hearing aids, the FDA does not regulate hearing amplifiers. Using a hearing amplifier is like wearing drugstore reading glasses; they may help for a while, but if your vision declines more, you’ll have to get prescription glasses.

Likewise, these hearing devices may help for a time, but if your hearing declines, you will need a hearing aid over just an amplifier. 

On 8/16/22, the FDA finalized a rule that enables hearing aids to be sold over-the-counter, expanding access to them with patients no longer needing them specifically prescribed by a healthcare provider. 

Another concern is that these types of amplifiers could damage your hearing. Because hearing amplifiers make surrounding sounds louder, you could expose your ears to unsafe noise.

Hearing amplifiers may be a solution for you if:

  • You do not have hearing loss and only need them for certain pastimes 
  • Your hearing is not damaged

Because these unregulated hearing devices do not require a prescription, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider before using them. 

Making the Right Hearing Device Solution

Maintaining your hearing ability is important, and when you have hearing loss, you need a solution to help you keep your quality of life.

Both hearing aids and hearing amplifiers are devices worn on or in the ear and help amplify sound. 

Hearing aids, however, are fully customizable, work to reduce background noise so that you can hear more clearly, and can be prescribed by your doctor. Hearing amplifiers are direct-to-consumer products that simply make sound around you louder. 

An audiologist can help determine if you need hearing aids or if another hearing solution is a better fit. For more information on hearing loss, head to the USA Rx blog

References, Studies and Sources:

Hearing Aids | Johns Hopkins Medicine 

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aids | NIDCD 

Applications of direct-to-consumer hearing devices for adults with hearing loss: a review - PMC 

FDA Finalizes Historic Rule Enabling Access to Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids for Millions of Americans | FDA 

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