Face Masks and Hearing Loss: Challenges and Solutions

As we continue to navigate through the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of the virus. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) continues to recommend cloth face coverings for everyone when out in public. There is no doubt that the pandemic has presented unique challenges to people across the globe. Adjusting to the new normal of face masks may be difficult for all of us, but it may be especially challenging for individuals with hearing loss.

Face masks are designed to cover the nose and mouth to trap airborne particles that have the potential to spread the virus. With a properly worn face mask, a large part of the face becomes covered. Face masks provide a barrier to the virus, but they also present as a barrier to communication. Whether we realize it or not, we all rely on facial cues, expression, and emotion to help us understand spoken conversation. Individuals with reduced hearing ability typically rely more heavily on these cues as their access to auditory information is limited. Individuals with hearing loss may notice that they are having increased difficulty understanding speech when the speaker is wearing a face mask. This is because they no longer have access to those visual facial cues. If you are struggling to understand someone who is speaking while wearing a face mask, try asking them to please slow down their rate of speech, project their voice more, and/or to enunciate their words to help improve the clarity of speech. Some people have been able to make masks with a plastic window to allow visualization of the mouth for lip reading. 

Just as face masks reduce the transmission of airborne particles, they also reduce the transmission of sound. At Priority Hearing and Tinnitus, we conducted an in-office experiment to investigate just how much face masks can affect the transmission of speech sounds. Using the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app, we measured the intensity or loudness of speech while the speaker was wearing a face mask and when he was not. The sound level meter was placed at the CDC recommended distance of 6 ft from the speaker’s mouth. We found that wearing a face mask can attenuate sound by up to 10 decibels. That’s a lot! Not only are we now missing visual cues from the speaker’s face, but their speech is not as loud as we are used to hearing. As you can imagine, this presents another challenge for everyone, but has a large impact on those who have difficulty hearing. If you are speaking to someone who is wearing a face mask and you are not able to hear them, try asking them to please raise their voice (without yelling) so that you can hear them through the mask.

Many hearing aid users have a behind-the-ear (BTE) style hearing aid, where the processor sits behind the pinnae. That precious space behind your ear can get pretty crowded, especially if you also wear glasses or an oxygen tube – and now they want you to wear a mask that loops behind your ears too?! We find that many BTE-wearing hearing aid patients are hesitant to wear their hearing aids while wearing a mask because they are concerned that the hearing aids might fall out and become lost or damaged as they take their face mask on and off. You shouldn’t have to choose between wearing a face mask and wearing your hearing aids. If you’re worried about losing your BTEs while you wear a mask, considering purchasing a face mask that ties behind the head and neck. If you prefer the masks with ear loops, you can also purchase an ear saver that rests on the back of your head and provides a location besides your ears to hook the mask onto. These are typically made out of fabric or plastic. If you’re looking for a fun quarantine project, you can even make the face mask or ear saver yourself!

As always, if you have concerns about your hearing or tinnitus, please come visit us at Priority Hearing and Tinnitus. We are always happy to help!

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