(sorry for the clickbait title – I promise this post will be full of useful information)
In my 3 years working in an audiology clinic, I saw a lot of people bring in hearing aids that they claimed were “dead,” “weak,” or otherwise “not working.” In many cases, their hearing aids actually did have some sort of issue that required repair by the manufacturer but often (maybe even in the majority of cases) these hearing aids could be made to work again with only the simplest of cleaning and maintenance. In this post, I’m going to do my best to explain the causes and at-home solutions to common issues.
Though hearing aids can be incredibly complex, the most common problems are usually very simple. To show this, lets start by treating the computing part of hearing aids as a mysterious black box. We don’t know what’s going on inside, and frankly we (mostly) don’t really care right now. Let’s illustrate the functions of hearing aids to see what the steps look like:
Sound Input —> [mysterious black box] —> Sound Output
There you go, that’s all there is to them. So if we as hearing aid users want to remedy a problem with our hearing aids, there are only two places for us to look at: sound input and sound output. The next step is to diagnose the problem.
( *** For all of the following steps, make sure you are using a new battery which has been verified by a battery tester. Sometimes batteries die suddenly if exposed to moisture and sometimes new batteries out of a box can turn out to be duds. Verify your battery is working to save yourself later headaches. *** )
Your hearing aids probably play some sort of awful, annoying jingle when you first turn them on, right? Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have the nice lady who announces “RIGHT READY” and “LEFT READY” like you’re some sort of audio-astronaut about to blast into space. Those annoying sounds are actually an incredibly useful diagnostic tool for hearing aid users (and if you’ve already asked your hearing aid professional to turn them off you should get that reversed at your next appointment).
The reason for these sounds’ importance is if you feel your HAs are weak or dead and you can still hear the startup sound at it’s normal volume then it means you have a problem with the sound input to your hearing aids. If you look at our flowchart above, that makes sense because the startup sound originates after the sound input, so an input problem would not affect the startup sound.
If you know or suspect that your hearing aid input issues may be moisture related, the best thing to do is turn your hearing aid off, remove the battery and let it dry out. If you have a drying box use it, but if you don’t, time and warm air will do the trick too. I think people usually assume that if a hearing aid incident occurs involving moisture it must mean the moisture affected the “black box” of our working flowchart. However, often the issue is simply small amounts of moisture blocking the hearing aid’s sound input. People will often stick these hearing aids in a box thinking they are dead and when they bring them in they’ve dried out and are working fine.
If you’re confident that your hearing aid’s problems aren’t moisture related or if you’ve already tried the previous step and it still isn’t working properly we can move on to cleaning. For your hearing aids, the sound input takes the form of a microphone which is recessed into the hearing aid or protected by a cover of some type.
For hearing aids that have small screens as shown below, the best way to clean these screens is to use a soft bristled toothbrush until all of the vents look fully black and unobstructed (please use a different toothbrush than the one you use for your teeth – don’t be gross). While doing this, be careful to not press down too hard as any bristles which poke through the screen may damage the actual microphones.
Other hearing aids have replaceable microphone covers as shown below. For the hearing aid on the left, the microphone cover (circled in red) can easily be replaced if you have a spare cover and know how to replace it. However, a good cleaning with a brush alone as described above will often solve any issues. (While backpacking, I once got a “dead” hearing aid working by cleaning around the microphone cover with a spruce needle – resourcefulness is essential when you’re out and about.) Just be careful not to brush your microphone cover off and lose it.
For the hearing aid on the right, the microphone covers, circled in green, take the form of tiny little felt-like strips that can easily be replaced. Brushing or cleaning doesn’t help a whole lot in this case.
After you’ve gone through the above steps, try turning your hearing aids on again. You should still hear the startup jingle, and hopefully you hear the world around you better too.
If you turn your hearing aid on and don’t hear the startup sounds at their proper volume, you likely have a problem involving the hearing aid’s sound output. To verify this, and confirm that your problem is not a fault in your hearing aid’s “black box” try and remove as much as you can between the hearing aid itself and the end where sound exits the device.
If you have a BTE hearing aid with tubing as shown below-left, remove the mold and tubing from the stiff plastic hook and hold it up to our ear to hear if it is amplifying sounds. It is common for wax buildup to occur hear and stop all sounds from reaching your ear. Occasionally, the plastic hook can become clogged too. If you know how to remove it, you can do so as well (note that this is very different between hearing aids and you may risk damaging your hearing aid’s casing if you are not careful).
If you have a BTE hearing aid with a thin, stiff tube as shown below-right, you can remove it as well and listen for amplification. These usually screw off, but please check your owner’s manual to be sure.
If you have a custom hearing aid or an RIC model (with the sound output device at the end of the wire, not in the hearing aid casing like the “microtube” hearing aid discussed above), follow the same idea. Remove the rubber dome if you have one, and remove the wax guard and listen for sound output.
(If you’re not sure how to replace your wax guard, here’s a great video explaining how to do so on Phonak and Unitron hearing aids (there are lots of other videos out there for other manufacturers online as well): http://www.henleyhearing.co.uk/wax-guard-replacement-ric-phonak-unitron-hearing-aid-henley-on-thames-henley-hearing-clinic/)
If you’ve removed as much as you can from the output end of your hearing aids and find that the device itself is still amplifying sounds properly, simply clean the pieces you took off and put your hearing aid back together again. For hearing aids with tubing and molds, you can wash the molds and tubes out with water and allow them to completely dry before reattaching them. Use the same small blue bulb you might use to flush your ears with water to flush water through the tubing.
For BTE hearing aids with the thinner “microtubing,” clean out the end of your mold or dome (or just replace your dome entirely). Your hearing aid professional can give you special thin, stiff plastic wires you can use clean out the length of the tubing if needed.
For custom hearing aids and RICs, clean or replace the plastic dome and wax guards. For RICs, a common issue is deterioration of the thin wire that goes from the hearing aid casing to the tiny speaker that sits in your ear. Unfortunately, this must be replaced by a professional – although it is something they can do in-house and does not require the hearing aid being sent away to the manufacturer for an expensive repair.
“Black Box” Problems
Unfortunately, if nothing above works to correct an issue you have with your hearing aid, it may be due to a problem with the actual circuitry inside the hearing aid casing. This is unpleasant and often expensive, but there are a few things you can do to make this ordeal less painful:
- Ask about dropping your hearing aid off. Many people will wait a week to see a professional for an appointment only to have the hearing aid shipped off for repairs. Ask if your clinic will allow you to simply drop off the hearing aid without an appointment to have it repaired faster.
- Keep a spare pair. Instead of discarding old hearing aids, keep them handy in case your current set needs repair. Your professional may be willing to give you a loaner hearing aid, but its often much easier and quicker to have your own replacement on hand.
- Know your dates. Make sure you know when your warranties expire, as well as how old your hearing aids are. It might be worth sending your hearing aids for repair if they’re not quite working 100% and still under warranty than waiting until they’re completely dead and no longer covered. Also, many manufacturers will will stop repairing hearing aids past a certain age. If your hearing aids are 5 or 6 years old and your professional is suggesting you get new ones, its probably a good idea.
A Small Disclaimer
I’m all for empowering hearing aid users to have a bigger part in their hearing – including regular maintenance and problem solving of their hearing aids. I have done my best to provide a proper overview of various problems and solutions, but I definitely am not claiming to to know it all. If you’re not fully comfortable doing anything I’ve suggested, then please don’t do so. Ask your hearing care professional about proper maintenance specific to your own hearing aids and always follow your owner’s manual.