Hearing Impairment and Masks: 8 Tips for Improved Communication
October 25, 2021
Masking and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant communication challenges for people with hearing impairment.
According to Virginia Gural-Toth, AuD, CCC-A, manager of the Audiology, Tinnitus and Balance Programs at the Center for Audiology at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, masks and social distancing reduce the volume and clarity of speech and make it difficult for people with hearing impairment to use other strategies that assist with comprehension.
“Masking during the pandemic has made hearing loss more apparent,” said Dr. Gural-Toth. “Masks filter out high-frequency speech information, muffle sound, and add to distortion.”
Dr. Gural-Toth also said that because masks obstruct the face, people with hearing impairment can’t use visual cues such as lip reading or facial expressions — which provided added context that is an important part of speech comprehension.
“As a result of the pandemic, people with diagnosed hearing loss may experience difficulty communicating with others who are wearing masks,” said Anne Eckert, AuD, administration director of rehabilitation at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute. “For people with undiagnosed hearing loss, masking may bring the problem to the forefront and motivate them to seek treatment.”
Proper Diagnosis Can Prevent Problems
Although hearing loss can cause quality of life, communication and social problems, it can also have serious health and safety implications. Untreated hearing loss has been associated with cognitive decline and could cause problems with balance or hearing subtle sounds — such as the whooshing caused by a gas or water leak.
That’s why it’s critical to seek help if you observe early signs of hearing loss.
“We may start to see more people coming in to get hearing tests as a result of masking during the pandemic,” said Dr. Gural-Toth. “Reaching out to your primary care provider and asking for a referral to an audiologist is the first step.”
With the guidance of a doctorate-level audiologists, such as the audiology specialists at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, Dr. Gural-Toth said that patients can explore options for treatment with hearing aids.
“Today’s hearing aids are very sophisticated, and can replicate sound clearly and crisply,” said Dr. Gural-Toth. “They are also so small you can barely notice them, and the sooner you treat hearing loss, the easier it is to adapt to the amplification.”
Masking for People Who Use Hearing Aids
If you wear a behind-the-ear hearing aid, using a mask with elastic straps that hook behind the ears could cause irritation and increase your risk of losing your hearing aid. And if you also wear glasses, it can present even more of a problem.
Here are a few tips that can protect your hearing aids and your ears:
- Pull long hair into a bun and loop the elastics around the bun.
- Create a “mask extender” out of a four-inch piece of fabric or ribbon by sewing buttons on either side to hold the mask’s elastic straps.
- Sew two large buttons onto a soft headband so the buttons line up with each ear. Loop the elastic around each button to reduce irritation behind the ears.
- Use masks with strings or ribbons that tie in the back.
“People with hearing aids should check to make sure their hearing aid is still in place after they remove their mask,” said Dr. Eckert. “We have had patients lose hearing aids because they didn’t realize it fell out.”
8 Tips for Improved Communication
An accurate diagnosis and proper treatment are the best strategies for managing hearing loss. However, Dr. Gural-Toth and Dr. Eckert said there are a few tips that anyone can use to help overcome communication barriers caused by masking and social distancing, including:
- Lock in attention. Make sure you have someone’s full attention — including eye contact — before starting a conversation.
- Raise the volume, but avoid distortion. It’s OK to speak louder to compensate for the muffling effect of a mask, but be careful to avoid yelling, which only adds to the distortion.
- Speak slowly. Speaking slowly and clearly allows people with hearing impairment additional time to process information.
- Search for facial cues. Although lip reading may not be possible, people with hearing impairment can still detect other facial cues, such as raised eyebrows, eye movements, or wrinkles created when smiling.
- Use gestures. Hand gestures can help to convey a message through context cues.
- Reduce background noise. Limiting background noise helps the brain to filter and process speech.
- Write it down. Writing, texting, or using a speech-to-text smartphone app can be efficient and beneficial.
- Wear a clear mask. Clear masks allow people with hearing loss to read lips and pick up on other visual cues.
“If you are still having trouble hearing people when they are wearing a mask even when wearing your hearing aids, you may be able to have a second program installed specifically for hearing people who are wearing masks,” said Dr. Eckert.
If you or your loved one is having difficulty hearing and understanding speech, it’s important to get an evaluation from a qualified audiologist.
“We want to encourage people who may have noticed hearing loss during the pandemic to get a hearing test, because getting a diagnosis is the first step toward appropriate treatment — and an improved quality of life,” said Dr. Gural-Toth.
Next Steps & Resources:
- Meet our Experts: Virginia Gural-Toth, AuD, CCC-A, and Anne Eckert, AuD. To make an appointment with a doctor near you, call 800-822-8905.
The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.