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Have you noticed ads for low-cost “personal sound amplifiers” (PSAs) on television or in magazines in recent months? These advertisements are contributing to confusion about the difference between hearing aids and personal sound amplifiers. One reason you don’t see very many ads for hearing aids is that they are medical devices, supervised by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and therefore not available for purchase without an individual prescription from a licensed doctor, audiologist or hearing instrument specialist. Hearing aids are intended to help individuals with reduced hearing; they have settings and sophisticated electronics that can be programmed to correct specific hearing difficulties.

In contrast, PSAs were developed for individuals with normal hearing. A PSA raises the volume level of surrounding sounds. Some personal sound amplifiers look very much like hearing aids, but they aren’t; all that they do is increase the volume of surrounding sounds. Personal sound amplifiers cannot adapt to individual requirements, selectively amplify certain frequencies or filter out background noise as hearing aids do.

The modest price of personal sound amplifiers (under $100, versus thousands for the best hearing aids) may make them seem attractive to individuals on a limited budget. That is exactly why the Food & Drug Administration has distributed warnings about personal sound amplifiers and has developed information campaigns and websites to inform the public about the dissimilarities between these types of devices. The FDA guidance is straightforward: if you are having difficulty hearing sounds at volumes that other individuals consider normal, have your hearing tested by a qualified hearing specialist before you consider buying a personal sound amplifier. Depending on a PSA instead of getting your hearing tested can delay vital treatment that might restore your hearing, and in certain cases (setting the volume too high) may even further damage your hearing.

So, before you make any final decision about purchasing a device to help your hearing, see your hearing specialist or audiologist. Some hearing problems (say for example an obstruction of the ear canals caused by a ear wax buildup) can be reversed in one doctor’s visit. Other hearing problems are more serious, but can also be treated with correctly-prescribed and correctly-programmed quality hearing aids. Neglecting the base problem by using a product that does nothing but boost volume levels may cause you to postpone appropriate treatment that could restore your hearing, and thus negate the need for either PSAs or hearing aids.

If, however, your audiologist finds no evidence of serious hearing loss, and you’re still having difficulty hearing faint sounds, then you can think about purchasing a personal sound amplifier. When shopping, be certain to only consider personal sound amplifiers whose specifications state that they reliably amplify sounds between 1000 to 2000 Hertz, which is the range of typical human conversation. Also, don’t consider any personal sound amplifiers that don’t include volume controls and electronically-enforced loudness limits that do not allow their levels to surpass 135 decibels. A good quality personal sound amplifier can make weak sounds easier to hear for people with normal hearing, and consequently have their purpose. They just should not be confused with authentic hearing aids, or be used as a substitute for them by people with true hearing loss.

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