To say that COVID-19 has impacted every facet of daily life may be the understatement of the century. For individuals with hearing loss, the challenges have been even greater. As use of a face mask and physical distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have become commonplace, audiologists are seeing a rise in hearing-related concerns.
Despite the ability for face masks to hinder viral transmission, they also hinder sound transmission. Individuals who utilize hearing aids, cochlear implants or other assistive technology depend heavily on lip-reading and facial cues. Wearing masks makes it difficult to identify these visual cues. Facial cues are also an integral part of American Sign Language which may be the preferred mode of communications for individuals who are deaf. According to a recent study published in the Hearing Review by Goldin, Weinstein and Shinman, a basic surgical mask reduces volume by two to four decibels (loudness) from 2,000 to 7,000 Hertz (Hertz represents pitch). An N95 mask can reduce volume by up to 12 decibels! This means that face masks muffle some of the higher pitched sounds which are very important for speech understanding and clarity.
Physical distancing can create another challenge for individuals with hearing loss because most hearing aids and cochlear implants function optimally for speech understanding at a distance of three to five feet. Physical distancing of six feet can make it difficult for individuals to pick up on speech cues especially in noisy environments such as grocery stores, doctor’s offices or banks.
It’s not uncommon for people with hearing loss to find themselves asking for repetition. It’s important for people to be good advocates for themselves and clearly communicate to others when they don’t hear well. It is so common for those with hearing loss to smile, nod and pretend to understand. This can lead to misunderstandings and even more serious mistakes when we fail to hear vital information.
Pandemic or not, audiologists have quite an extensive toolbox to keep individuals with hearing loss connected to those they love.
- There are many assistive technologies for patients struggling with masks and physical distancing. Special programming or hearing aid adjustments, telecoil functionality and special microphones to hear background noise are considerations for individuals with hearing aids or cochlear implants.
- There are strategies everyone can use to better communicate with individuals with hearing loss. One easy option is to consider purchasing a face mask with a clear window to help identify facial cues and for lip reading. Safe’ N’ Clear is a company in the United States who produces a surgical mask with a clear panel to allow the listener to see the wearer’s mouth. There are also tutorials online for individuals to make their own masks.
- Other communication strategies are available for the talker or the listener.
Hearing loss and physical distancing both carry higher risks for social isolation and loneliness, especially for the elderly population. Hearing loss prevalence also increases with age. Certain chronic diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease can also be more prevalent in this population, putting elderly individuals at higher risk for illness and hospitalization. Many people are surprised to know that these same health conditions also put people at higher risk of hearing loss! Research still needs to be done to determine the effects of COVID-19 on the inner ear. However, we know that some viruses and their treatments put people at higher risk of hearing loss.
The early signs of hearing loss can be difficult to recognize. Hearing loss has been called the “silent” epidemic because it can progress slowly over time. For many individuals, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a subtle reminder of the importance of normal hearing sensitivity for optimal communication. If you or your loved one are struggling with signs of hearing loss such as difficulty hearing in background noise, frequently asking for repetition or ringing in the ears, do not hesitate to seek out a baseline hearing evaluation by an audiologist.
Schedule an appointment with a Prevea Audiologist:
Green Bay, Oconto Falls or Sturgeon Bay: (920) 405-1414
Sheboygan or Manitowoc: (920) 457-2100
Altoona, Chippewa Falls, Mondovi or Rice Lake: (715) 717-6885