The face mask has become a staple of our “new normal,” widely recommended by medical professionals as a frontline of defense in fighting the COVID-19 global pandemic. In many parts of the country (and the world), mask mandates require the public to wear their masks anytime they’re away from home – whether that’s at the grocery store, a doctor’s office, school, or even at the gym.

Keeping You and Others Safe

And while masks are part of the larger goal to safeguard against the rapid spread of COVID-19, the addition of mask-wearing in everyday life has come with plenty of challenges. Aside from the logistics of mandated masks, there have also been a number of unforeseen challenges with mask-wearing. Perhaps one of the most significant is the way in which face masks impact individuals with various types of hearing issues, adding a major hurdle for hearing correction.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to stretch on indefinitely, it’s becoming more and more clear that face masks likely aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, understanding how wearing face masks presents unique challenges for individuals with hearing loss – and considering potential solutions – is incredibly important for everyday people, hearing professionals, and policy-makers alike.

How Face Masks are a Problem for People with Hearing Loss

In the past several months, we have learned that masks are a valuable health and safety tool. Unfortunately, they can also be a serious impediment for people with hearing loss when it comes to effective communication.

Not only do face masks physically block sound, but they also eliminate important speech-reading cues such as facial expressions and lip movements. This is a doubly-challenging issue for individuals that rely on these cues to communicate with others.

The Severity of the Issue Depends on the Mask

It makes sense that the specific type of mask can affect just how severely communication is affected. Audiology Today facilitated a study that examined a range of face masks in order to determine the decibel impact of each, giving us a scale of sorts that ranks masks best to worst (for people with hearing loss).

Researchers used a double-walled sound booth and a white noise machine in the study, measuring the output from 6 feet away (the distance recommended that health experts recommend avoiding viral transmission). They analyzed the impact in decibels, testing several masks types with and without a face shield:

  • Surgical mask: 5.0 dB, 20.0 dB with face shield
  • KN95 mask: 8.7 dB, 29.2 dB with face shield
  • N95 mask: 10.9 dB, 28.7 dB with face shield

As you can see, surgical masks affected sound quality the least. Face shields always resulted in a dramatic decrease in sound quality, which has raised other questions about the plexiglass dividers commonly used in retailers’ checkout lines.

Clear Masks: A Good Solution?

Recently, clear masks have been suggested as a possible solution to this issue. And while the transparent window in the mask does make lip reading possible, there is a trade-off to consider.

According to the same Audiology Today study noted above, clear masks can block up to twice the amount of sound of N95 masks. When compared to typical surgical masks, the material used in clear masks muffled the sound up to four times as much (depending on the specific type of clear mask). And when a face shield was added, hearing clearly became even more difficult.

This means that while clear masks could work for some people with hearing loss, specifically those that primarily use lip-reading, they definitely aren’t a perfect solution across the board. If you rely on a combination of sound and lip-reading, clear masks might be more of a hurdle than a help. Your experience will largely depend on the severity of your hearing loss, as well as the material and type of the mask you are facing (loosely-woven cotton and surgical masks tend to be the best for sound quality preservation).

Additionally, individuals with hearing loss would need widespread use of clear masks in order for them to really make a difference; everyone from grocery store clerks to public safety officials would need to wear one. Unfortunately, the likelihood that a large majority of people would adopt clear masks is fairly low – making this an unrealistic solution overall.

Technology Tries to Offer New Options

Even though clear masks aren’t always ideal, that doesn’t mean that people with hearing loss have to settle for a complete loss of communication in their everyday lives. There are a handful of tech-savvy advances that are proving useful in solving this unique challenge.

Many hearing aid manufacturers and audiologists have worked diligently to create specific mask settings for hearing aids, which strategically amplify the higher-pitched sounds that are usually blocked by masks. Different programs may be necessary to accommodate varying masks types than an individual might encounter on a daily basis, but, once programmed, your hearing aids may be able to function much more effectively in our current world.

On a larger scale, captioning technology, lapel microphones, and looping solutions could minimize the specific challenges that masks cause for people with hearing loss, especially in public spaces and educational settings. Long-term, they can also be an excellent step towards better accessibility in general.
Ultimately, there’s not necessarily just one “best” approach to resolving the problems that masks can cause for hearing loss people. It seems that a combination of several solutions, including clear masks and technology, might be the route that makes the most sense for everyone.

Get Support for Your Hearing Loss Challenges at Memorial Hearing

Struggling with hearing issues can be extremely frustrating, isolating, and difficult – but you don’t have to do it alone. At Memorial Hearing, our highly trained team of hearing specialists is ready to help you restore both your hearing and your quality of life. Our audiologist is well-equipped to deliver a tailored treatment option that suits you with an extensive range of hearing aids, including leading brands, models, and features.

Virtually every aspect of our everyday lives has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the challenges are particularly disruptive for individuals with hearing loss. From face masks to social distancing, many unexpected aspects come with navigating this new way of life. If you have hearing loss and are experiencing stress due to changes like these, we invite you to visit our hearing specialists to get the support and help you need. Whether your best-fit solution is new hearing aids, hearing aid adjustments, or another option, Memorial Hearing is here for you.

For more information about how face masks and hearing issues are a problem that we can help you solve, schedule your appointment at Memorial Hearing’s audiology practice in Houston today. Call (832) 981-5062 or contact us online today.

__________
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / KrakenImages.com