Some use testing methods backed by sound science, says Nicholas Reed, audiologist and assistant professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, while others have little evidence to back them up.
One of the main limitations of online apps and tests is that they cannot rule out potentially reversible causes of hearing loss, such as excess earwax, as an audiologist would do during an in-person test. “If you do a self-hearing screen, a person can’t look into their own ear,” says Yula Serpanos, a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY.
That said, an online test could be a useful screening tool. If you want to try one, consider the following.
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For most online and app-based tests, you’ll be advised to wear headphones and sit in a quiet place.
The two main types both have advantages and disadvantages. In pure-tone audiometry, which involves some aspect of testing performed by audiologists, tones are played at decreasing volumes to determine your specific level of hearing loss. But these hearing tests require the use of appropriate equipment – a test performed on an iPad, for example, may only work with AirPods headphones – which limits the options.
In the second type, known as speech in noise or numbers in noise (DIN), you will be asked to identify words, numbers or phrases amidst background noise. DIN tests generally do not require any specific equipment. But they are less precise and serve as a more general indicator of a problem.
Experts we spoke with suggest researching the following.
Validation: The word “validation” in the description suggests that a test has been scientifically evaluated for accuracy, Serpanos says. It’s even better if the description contains a summary of (or links to) the validation studies. One of these tests is the World Health Organization hearWHO app.
Clear and detailed instructions: Treat tests that provide little instruction or explanation of their methods with caution, Reed says. A test should also monitor background noise and alert you if it is too loud for an accurate result. For a pure-tone audiometry test, the instructions should tell you what kind of headphones to use.
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What to do with the results
If a reputable online hearing test tells you that you don’t have hearing loss and you don’t suspect you’re having trouble hearing, that’s a reasonably reliable result, Reed says. “Most good tests err on the side of caution,” he says, and are more likely to suggest you might have hearing loss when you really don’t.
If the test indicates you have hearing loss, it’s best to take that as a starting point, Serpanos says. You can take the results to your doctor, an audiologist, or a licensed hearing care professional for further evaluation.
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