Face Masks & Hearing Difficulty: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Written by the Nano Hearing Aids Team
Reviewed for Accuracy by Lindsay Roberts, AuD.

Lindsay Roberts
Face Masks & Hearing Difficulty: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Key Takeaways

  • Face masks can muffle sound, making it difficult for people with hearing loss to understand speech.
  • Face masks also hide facial cues and lip movements that are essential for those relying on lip-reading.
  • There are specific symptoms to watch out for that indicate difficulty in hearing due to face masks.
  • Various treatment options exist, including medical interventions, hearing aids, and communication strategies.
  • Choosing the right kind of face mask can make a significant difference for those with hearing loss.

What is Face Masks-Related Hearing Difficulty?

Hearing difficulty related to face masks isn't a new type of hearing loss; rather, it's an additional challenge for those who already experience hearing difficulties. When someone wears a face mask, it can dampen and distort sounds, making high-frequency sounds less clear. This can make understanding speech tough, especially in noisy environments. Besides that, masks can also hide the mouth and parts of the face that many people with hearing loss unconsciously rely on to communicate effectively.

Causes of Face Masks-Related Hearing Difficulty

Let's get into why face masks can make hearing harder for some. The main culprit is sound attenuation. Masks, especially those with multiple layers or thicker fabric, can reduce the volume of a speaker's voice by several decibels. This means that sounds that were already hard to hear become even softer and more difficult to discern.

Common Causes:

  • Mask Fabric Thickness: Reduction in sound levels caused by dense or several layers of mask material.
  • Speech Sound Distortion: Alteration of speech sounds, especially high-frequency consonants, due to mask wearing.
  • Visual Cue Loss: Inability to see lip movements and facial expressions for reading lips and gauging emotions.
  • Background Noise Interference: Additional background noise that compounds the challenge of understanding muffled speech.

Symptoms of Face Masks-Related Hearing Difficulty

Now, what should you look out for? If you or someone you know is having more trouble understanding what people say when they're wearing a mask, that's a big sign. This might be particularly noticeable in places like the grocery store or at work, where you're interacting with people who are masked up.

Look out for these indicators:

  • Masked Speaker Comprehension: Challenges in understanding speech from individuals wearing masks.
  • Frequent Requests for Repetition: Needing others to repeat themselves more often.
  • Increased Fatigue and Stress: Experiencing heightened tiredness or stress from the effort to listen.
  • Social Avoidance: Dodging social interactions or discussions because of communication difficulties.

Diagnosing Hearing Loss

Diagnosing any hearing loss, including that which is exacerbated by face masks, begins with a visit to a hearing specialist.

They'll likely conduct a hearing test to assess the level of hearing loss. These tests can determine the quietest sounds you can hear at different pitches and volumes, helping to pinpoint specific areas of difficulty. 

If you notice you're struggling to hear with masks, don't hesitate to get tested. It's also important to discuss with the specialist the situations where you're having the most trouble. This can help tailor any treatment or strategies to your lifestyle. For instance, if you find it challenging to hear in meetings at work, solutions can be geared towards improving your experience in that setting.

Treatment Options for Hearing Loss

Once a diagnosis is made, there are several routes you can take for treatment. It's not a one-size-fits-all situation, and what works for one person may not work for another. That's why it's critical to explore all options and find what's best for you.

Medical Interventions and Hearing Aids

For some, medical interventions may be necessary. This could include medications or surgical procedures, depending on the cause of the hearing loss. Hearing aids are another common solution.

They can amplify the sounds you want to hear, making it easier to understand speech, even when someone is wearing a mask. Modern hearing aids can also be fine-tuned to enhance certain frequencies affected by masks.

Non-Medical Solutions and Communication Tactics

There are also non-medical approaches. These include communication tactics like asking people to speak louder, clearer, and slower, or to rephrase rather than just repeat when you don't understand something. In some cases, transparent masks can be used to allow for lip-reading, or you could use a smartphone app that transcribes speech in real-time.

Here's a quick rundown of communication tactics:

  • Ask the speaker to rephrase rather than repeat.
  • Request that the speaker removes their mask at a safe distance if possible.
  • Utilize speech-to-text apps on your smartphone.
  • Consider using a personal amplifier to boost the speaker's voice.

And don't forget, being upfront about your hearing loss can often encourage others to be more considerate and patient in conversations.

Choosing the Right Kind of Face Mask

Finally, the type of face mask you and those around you wear can make a big difference. Masks with clear panels around the mouth are available, which can help with lip-reading. Also, masks that don't muffle sound as much, like those made from thinner fabric or with a better fit around the mouth, can reduce the impact on hearing.

Let's be clear, though: safety should always come first. Make sure any mask you choose still meets the recommended guidelines for protection against viruses and other airborne particles.

Living with Hearing Loss

Living with hearing loss presents unique challenges, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread use of face masks. Masks can muffle speech, reduce the volume and clarity of voices, and eliminate the visual cues many rely on for effective communication. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and wearing face masks have made it harder for people with hearing loss.

Can Face Masks-Related Hearing Frustration be Prevented?

The following measures are especially helpful for those who are hard of hearing and rely on visual cues for better communication.

To support effective communication in environments where masks are worn, particularly around individuals with hearing loss, it's essential to distinguish between actions taken by those wearing masks and those with hearing loss.

For those wearing masks around individuals with hearing loss:

  • Select Sound-Friendly Masks: Opt for masks made from materials that do not significantly reduce sound quality.
  • Lip-Reading Enabled Masks: Use masks with a clear plastic section to facilitate lip-reading.
  • Proper Mask Fit: Ensure your mask fits snugly without unnecessarily covering more of the face than required, to aid in clearer communication.

Guidance for individuals with hearing loss when around people wearing masks:

  • Promote Clear CommunicationAdvocate for others to speak slowly, enunciate their words clearly, and maintain eye contact to enhance understanding during conversations.
  • Hearing Aid Maintenance: Regularly maintain your hearing aids and wear them consistently to ensure optimal hearing and comprehension.

These steps can help reduce the impact of face masks on hearing. Remember, it's all about finding the right balance between protecting our health and maintaining clear communication.

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NANO CIC Digital Recharge OTC Hearing Aids (CIC4) (Copy)

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What type of face mask is best for someone with hearing loss?

Masks with clear panels can be helpful for those who rely on lip-reading. Additionally, softer, thinner fabrics may not muffle sound as much as thicker materials.

Can hearing aids be adjusted to help with the challenges posed by face masks?

Yes, many hearing aids can be adjusted to amplify certain frequencies affected by face masks. It's best to consult with an audiologist for a personalized setting.

Should I inform others that I have a hearing impairment?

Yes, letting others know about your hearing impairment can encourage them to communicate more effectively with you, such as by facing you directly and speaking clearly.

Are there any resources for those struggling with face masks-related hearing loss?

Yes, many organizations offer resources and support for those with hearing loss. The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) is a great place to start. Face masks have become an essential tool in our fight against global health issues. However, for those experiencing hearing loss, they bring an additional set of challenges. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and available treatments, and taking preventive measures, we can ensure that communication remains clear, even in a masked world.

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