Hearing Aids and Personal Sound Amplifiers: Know the Difference

You’ve likely seen them advertised on television—small electronic sound amplifiers that allow users to enjoy nighttime TV without disturbing sleepers, or to hear their toddlers from many yards away.

While these personal sound amplifiers may help people hear things that are at low volume or at a distance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to ensure that consumers don’t mistake them—or use them as substitutes—for approved hearing aids.

“Hearing aids and personal sound amplification products (PSAPS) can both improve our ability to hear the sound,” says Eric Mann, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of FDA’s Division of Ophthalmic, Neurological, And Ear, Nose, and Throat Devices. “They are both wearable, and some of their technology and function are similar.”

Mann notes, however, that the products are different in that only hearing aids are intended to make up for impaired hearing.

He says consumers should buy a personal sound amplifier only after ruling out hearing loss as a reason for getting one. “If you suspect hearing loss, get your hearing evaluated by a health care professional,” he adds.

Choosing a PSAP as a substitute for a hearing aid can lead to more damage to your hearing, says Mann. “It can cause a delay in the diagnosis of a potentially treatable condition. And that delay can allow the condition to get worse and lead to other complications,” he says.

Treatments for an impaired hearing can be as simple as removal of a wax plug in the doctor’s office or, in rare cases, as serious as major surgery to remove a tumor or growth in the middle or inner ear, says Mann.

Signs of Loss of Hearing

Mann says that consumers who suspect they suffer from hearing loss should obtain a thorough medical evaluation, preferably by an ear specialist, to identify any medically or surgically treatable causes of hearing loss. Persons exhibiting symptoms of hearing loss should see a doctor or hearing health care professional to have their hearing tested.

You may have hearing loss if

  • people say you are shouting when you talk to them
  • you need the TV or radio turned up louder than other people do
  • you often ask people to repeat themselves because you can’t hear or understand them, especially in groups or when there is background noise
  • you can hear better out of one ear than the other
  • you have to strain to hear
  • you can’t hear a dripping faucet or a high note of a violin

How They Differ

In March 2009, the FDA issued guidance describing how hearing aids and personal sound-amplifying devices differ.

The recently issued guidance defines a hearing aid as a sound-amplifying device intended to compensate for impaired hearing.

PSAPs are not intended to make up for impaired hearing. Instead, they are intended for non-hearing-impaired consumers to amplify sounds in the environment for a number of reasons, such as for recreational activities.

The difference between PSAPS and hearing aids are among the topics covered in a new Web page devoted to hearing aids that FDA launched today.

Hearing amplifiers vs. hearing aids

Despite serving similar purposes, hearing amplifiers and hearing aids are two very different things. Let’s go through what sets these devices apart from one another.

While television ads have made personal sound amplifiers a tempting purchase, many people have failed to recognize the key differences between hearing amplifiers and hearing aids. Frequency-specific hearing loss is not something that can be mitigated through the amplification of all sound and using an amplifier where a hearing aid should be used can be dangerous.

Many audiologists and organizations have tried to stress the difference between amplifiers and hearing aids. Even the FDA put out a notice warning people that hearing amplifiers are not a replacement for hearing aids. Here are a few of the key differences between the two devices, and why hearing aids are probably a safer bet.

Personal sound amplifying products, or PSAPs, are designed to boost environmental hearing for people without hearing loss. They aren’t selective in what sounds they amplify and are commonly used to “keep an ear” on children or babies in another room. They’ve also been advertised to improve sound quality during recreational activities like birdwatching and theatre.

While the concept is intriguing, some people began misusing PSAPs as over-the-counter hearing aids. It might seem like an easy way to cut costs and avoid spending money on a certified hearing aid, but audiologists and doctors everywhere have warned against the practice. Hearing aids perform a complex purpose that depends on the wearer, whereas amplifiers boost all sound.

Hearing aids are usually professionally fitted and fine-tuned to the wearer and help mitigate hearing loss by boosting certain frequencies. Amplifiers simply make things louder, regardless of the frequency or volume. While hearing aids are tailored to hard of hearing people, PSAPs are meant to be used by people with a full range of hearing.

The dangers of hearing amplifiers

Hearing amplifiers aren’t entirely dangerous on their own. However, people misusing PSAPs is what makes them so harmful. Many consumers might try to use them as hearing aids, which can further damage hearing. While the technology used in hearing amplifiers and hearing aids is similar in some respects, they are two separate devices for different purposes.

Where hearing amplifiers are supposed to be used by people with normal hearing, hearing aids are designed for those with hearing loss. When people use PSAPs to mitigate hearing loss, the problem is not being solved. In fact, the problem isn’t even being recognized. A full audiogram and check-up are necessary to diagnose hearing loss.

Failing to get proper help for hearing loss can lead to further deterioration of a person’s hearing. This can mean the difference between mild and serious hearing loss.

Knowing which one to choose

If you or a loved one is interested in buying a PSAP, have a quick discussion about it. Why are they getting it? If they’re interested solely in birdwatching, theatre, or childcare, they might benefit from using a hearing amplifier sparingly. However, if they are getting a PSAP because they’ve been having trouble hearing, there might be an issue.

Before buying a PSAP, it’s recommended that potential buyers invest in a hearing test. If there is a problem with their hearing, an audiogram can help identify it. From there, they can begin considering actual hearing aids, which will solve their problems safely and efficiently.

While PSAPs and hearing aids might seem similar at first glance, they couldn’t be more different. One is meant for recreational use, whereas the other is a recommended treatment for hearing loss. Buying an amplifier instead of a hearing aid might seem like the easy way out, but it might do more harm than good.