Masks And Hearing Aids: What You Need To Know

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With the second wave of the novel coronavirus hitting during the holiday season, wearing a mask is more important than ever before.

The problem: "While masks are an important tool for reducing the spread of COVID-19, they have unintended consequences on our ability to communicate with one another, especially for people who are hearing impaired," says Nicole Greenwalt, AuD, an audiologist at Henry Ford Health System.

Masks And Hearing Aids

Wearing a face mask can be uncomfortable under the best of circumstances. And even if your hearing is normal, adding a mask can make communication difficult. But if you suffer from hearing loss, wearing a mask can pose significant challenges — both in terms of comfort and effective communication.

Among the top losses:

  • Visual cues: Masks remove the benefit of information you get from facial expressions and lip-reading. Without these cues, your brain has to work harder to listen. "That mental exertion can be significantly taxing, especially when there is background noise or when those communicating have underlying hearing loss," Dr. Greenwalt says.
  • Volume: Masks can reduce the volume of speech, which has an obvious negative effect on your ability to hear, understand and respond to someone appropriately in conversation.
  • Clarity: Any time you have something over your mouth, you reduce the clarity of your speech. Your voice carries at a lower frequency, which makes it especially difficult to communicate high-frequency sounds, including consonant sounds like "s," "h," and "t".
  • Interference with hearing aids: If you have a behind-the-ear hearing aid, you're more likely to run into trouble with face masks that sit over the ears (the most popular style). Wearing the two together increases the risk of misplacing the device if it becomes entangled while removing the mask. "Add glasses to the mix, and it all quickly becomes a source of stress," Dr. Greenwalt says.

Tips To Hear Better Despite Mask-Wearing

Despite the challenges, ditching your mask — or your hearing aid — is not an option. Finding a way to make your hearing aid work with a mask is critical for overcoming the challenges.

Luckily, there are a few simple fixes:

  • Get a mask with ties: If your behind-the-ear aid gets in the way of wearing a mask with ear loops, try a mask that ties around your head instead.
  • Make your own mask expander: Sew two buttons onto a piece of fabric to anchor the mask behind your head or use an oversized paperclip to connect the mask's strings around your head. "I've also seen clever headband solutions where the mask hooks up above the ear onto a button instead of behind the ear," Dr. Greenwalt says.
  • Talk to your audiologist: In some cases, a professional can add pieces to your hearing aids to help with retention in the ear. "Anything from a simple retention line to a custom earmold can help better anchor the hearing aid in the ear canal and prevent it from coming all the way out of the ear upon mask removal," Dr. Greenwalt says.
  • Prepare for hiccups: It's a good idea to come up with a few phrases to explain a potential breakdown in communication. You might try something like, “Excuse me, I have hearing loss and am having trouble hearing you because of our masks. Would you mind speaking a little louder and slower for me?” It may not always be easy but Dr. Greenwalt says, "When it comes to hearing loss, self-advocacy is key."

With a few small, simple adjustments, communication can become much more seamless.

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To find a doctor or audiologist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Nicole Greenwalt is a audiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Wyandotte - Templin Building and Henry Ford Medical Centers Lakeside in Sterling Heights and Pierson Clinic in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Categories: FeelWell