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Top 5 Problems With Hearing Aids

Get tips on dealing with common issues, from feedback to earwax buildup

Closeup of Hearing Aid in Man's Ear


En español | Getting used to wearing hearing aids isn't always easy. Challenges can occur after you take them home or dissuade you from getting them in the first place. Here are patients’ most vexing problems with the devices and ways to address them.

1. "I'm afraid they make me look old."

Many people worry that their hearing aids will be stigmatizing, especially those who remember them as large and cumbersome-looking. But new models are small and sleek; some are so tiny, you can hardly see them. You may quickly feel better about wearing hearing aids after seeing how unremarkable-looking they are in an era when everyone seems to be walking around with Bluetooth devices in their ears. “Frankly, having to constantly say ‘Huh?’ and ‘What did you say?’ is a lot more noticeable than wearing one of these,” says Melissa Karp, an audiologist at Audiology & Hearing Services of Charlotte, in North Carolina.

2. "I can't get used to the sounds.”

If you're new to hearing aids and haven't heard well for a long time, the sudden amplification of background sounds may be distracting, particularly in the higher frequencies. The longer you've waited between losing hearing and getting the devices, says Deborah Berndtson, an audiologist and associate director of American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) Audiology Professional Practices, “the more difficult it is to adjust to the amplification, because you're used to living in a quieter world."

You can get help adapting through aural rehabilitation — training your brain to hear a range of sounds again — either in one-on-one sessions or by using computer-based programs at home.

3. "I hear a whistling noise."

That high-pitched sound is feedback. And although most hearing aids have feedback-suppression features, some people still experience problems because of earwax buildup (see the next section for solutions) or an improper fit. Either issue can block the sound coming out of the device. “If it can't go all the way into the eardrum, where it's supposed to,” Berndtson says, “you can't understand speech or hear the sound” because it's “feeding back into the circuit.”

With a custom hearing aid, make sure it fits properly in the ear canal. Audiologists can correct these devices to some extent by grinding down the parts of the surface that are causing problems. It's harder to fit a one-size-fits-all device.

Whatever type of device you get, your fitting should be verified with probe microphone, or “real ear,” measures, Karp says. Real ear verification makes sure the hearing aids are programmed correctly based on your hearing-loss prescription. “It is the only way to know what the hearing aids are actually doing in the ear,” she says.

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4. "The sound isn't clear anymore."

Muffled sound is often due to the buildup of earwax, or cerumen, says Andrea Sterkel, an audiologist and director of audiologist services at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. If you produce a lot of earwax, you may need to have your ears cleaned regularly. Put a few drops of mineral or baby oil, glycerin or hydrogen peroxide into your ear to soften the wax, or have a health provider do it.

You may also need a wax trap, a small pit that will clutch any earwax before it can get into and damage the internal components of the hearing aid. The trap needs to be changed periodically so the device keeps working effectively.

5. "They're uncomfortable.”

Soreness in the ear canal can also be a matter of fit. You should ask about test-driving your hearing aids before you buy them, to be sure they stay comfortable for more than a few minutes.

If you have a custom hearing aid, the audiologist may be able to make adjustments to it using special tools (see “I hear a whistling noise"), says Berndtson. “Sometimes the device has to be remade to accommodate the sensitive spots in the ear canal.”