If you're one of the 35 million Americans with some degree of hearing loss, you may be considering getting a hearing aid. But the variety of hearing aids can be overwhelming, and you may not be sure where to start. Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration has created an online guide to help you make an informed decision. According to the guide, there are three main ways in which hearing aids differ from each other. These are by design (how and where they are meant to be worn), technology (the different ways in which they achieve sound amplification), and special features.

First, consider design. Generally, you can choose among four different types. These include:

Behind the ear. Behind-the-ear (BTE) aids are composed of small ear molds or earpieces inside the ear that are connected by clear tubes to plastic cases containing most of the components of the hearing aid. These cases rest behind the ear. BTE hearing aids are great for children because the two-piece design allows parents to replace only the ear molds as the children grow. They're also easily cleaned and not prone to breakage.

Mini BTE. An updated version of the BTE aid, the mini BTE aid is less visible and reduces the sensation of being "plugged up." It's also more comfortable and less likely to produce sound feedback.

In the ear. In-the-ear (ITE) aids are designed so that all parts of the aid are in a single shell that sits snugly in the visible outer part of the ear. These hearing aids are relatively easily to handle.

In the canal and completely in the canal. ITC and CITC hearing aids are great for people who don't want others to know they're wearing hearing aids, and they may also offer advantages in terms of sound volume. They may, however, be difficult to handle and unsuitable for people with dexterity problems.

The next choice you need to make is whether you want an analog or digital hearing aid. Analog hearing aids, which are quickly becoming obsolete, simply amplify whatever sound is being made. Digital hearing aids, which are all you're likely to be offered these days, utilize digital technology to give you an exact duplication of a sound. Digital hearing aids usually have different settings that you can adjust based upon where you are-a noisy party or a quiet room, for example-and that can be stored and retrieved at the touch of a button.

Finally, you may want to consider certain optional features. Directional microphones allow you to amplify sound coming from only one particular direction. A telephone-switch setting means you can hear better when you're on the phone because background noises are eliminated. Direct audio input lets you connect your hearing aid directly to a TV, computer, CD player, or radio. And feedback suppression lets you tamp out annoying noises that may occur when you get too close to a phone or if your ear piece is too loose.



Food and Drug Administration