Physical and mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, reduced social interaction or isolation, and an increased risk of dementia, are significant symptoms of an undiagnosed hearing loss. Decreased independence, strained relationships, and an overall reduction in quality of life are among the most lasting repercussions. 

More than 1.33 billion people worldwide are affected by some degree of hearing loss. Due to the use of face masks, those with hearing loss are struggling even more. As advocates for better hearing in Scottsdale, and the surrounding community, we would like to raise awareness of the challenges that face masks pose for those with hearing loss and provide some tips to help make things easier.

The Challenge

The use of face masks limits two fundamental elements of communication; clarity of speech and facial cues. 

Clarity of Speech

Sound waves travel along the hearing pathway to the brain where it is processed, interpreted, and understood. This process is essential for hearing. 

Whenever someone turns away, places their hand over their mouth, or speaks from behind a face mask, it impedes this free flow of sound. Consequently, even individuals with excellent hearing become subject to a hearing experience similar to wearing a pair of earmuffs. 

Muted speech from behind a face mask exacerbates the already reduced capacity of those with a hearing loss, making it difficult to distinguish between similar-sounding words and even entire phrases during a conversation.

Face masks lower the volume of sounds by approximately 15 decibels – that is the same volume as a whisper. If a person is already speaking softly, you can see how it is then impossible to hear for someone who already struggles to.

Absence of Non-Verbal Cues

As we communicate our thoughts and feelings we use various facial cues and mico-expressions, which are an integral part of imparting meaning and context to our words. 

These non-verbal cues are something that is learned from infancy and is an essential step to understanding emotion. How many of us remember “the look” our parents gave us when we’re in trouble? This “look” is non-verbal but immediately understood. A face mask obscures this communication or leaves it almost entirely redundant.

Those with a moderate or severe hearing impairment also rely on lip movement to understand the speaker. A big part of ASL relies on lip movement to create meaning/context. It is also tough to sign without touching the face.

Covering up the mouth eliminates these non-verbal cues and causes the listener to rely solely on raw sound for communication.

How You Can Help

  • Reduce background noise: Find a quieter place to talk or reduce background noise, like television or music.
  • Slow down and speak up: Most people speak very fast and tend to speak softly. Slowing down and speaking up, without shouting, helps make it easier to distinguish words and phrases from each other, improving the odds that your listener will understand.
  • Wear a face mask with a transparent window.
  • Use tools and apps: A variety of communication tools and smartphone apps have become available during this critical time. Some apps work as a microphone with amplification to help give those muffled sound waves a boost, while others translate speech into text so that someone who has difficulty hearing can read what the speaker is saying. 

Scottsdale ENT Is Your Hearing Health Advocate

To avoid isolating those with a hearing loss further, being aware of the difficulties produced by wearing a face mask and making a conscious effort to improve communication, is vital.

The team and I at Scottsdale ENT are your better hearing health advocates. We are passionate about providing the necessary resources to improve communication for our patients during the pandemic. 

We are proud to offer Telemedicine appointments to provide remote assistance, and in-person appointments according to revised safety protocols. Please call us at (480) 684-1080 or contact us online to take advantage of our hearing healthcare services.

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Dr. Debra L. Hamila, Au.D., CCC/A

Debra Hamila received her master’s degree in audiology from Cleveland State University and her Au.D. from Arizona School of Health Sciences and has been a practicing audiologist for more than 33 years. She has worked in a variety of ENT offices, hospital, and clinical settings.
    You don’t realise you’re walking with a rock in your shoe until you’re able to hear again – Regina’s Story

    Regina has suffered from hearing problems since she was an infant, recognized as regular chronic ear infections. And, as with unfortunate events, she has experienced a multitude of audiology catastrophes.

    It was many years before Regina crossed paths with Scottsdale Ear, Nose & Throat; where her lifetime of hearing problems was addressed effectively and treated with the delicate care that she desperately required.

    Regina’s journey began when she was taken to a regular paediatrician by her mother from a young age. Her ears were, what we describe as an audiologists recipe for disaster, ‘flushed out’.

    This dangerous procedure caused a nasty infection, which spread to her mastoid bone and, at the age of 15, she underwent a tympanoplasty mastoidectomy to stop the infection spreading. This only forbade her future struggles with hearing loss. 

    As with poor diagnosis, Regina was faced with another canaloplasty which didn’t work. Soon after, she received a BAHA, which is a cochlear implant in her skull that acts as a sound processor that detects sound and transforms it into vibrations. 

    However, suffering from a history of poor hearing care, she was unaware of the former issues her ear presented.

    By now, this would be described as any audiologists nightmare. But, we’re proud to have helped Regina on her road to optimum hearing and reconnect her to her loved ones.

    When she arrived at Scottsdale Ear, Nose & Throat it was evident that she was losing hearing on her right side. At this point, she was fitted with a ReSound hearing device, which provided the catalyst to a new and improved hearing.

    The first thing Regina noticed was the indefinite sound she had been making whilst emptying the dishwasher, completely unaware of the noise she was making!

    “I mean, the detail that I can hear now it’s like, Whoa, I didn’t realize I was making that much noise. I need to be quieter!”

    Treated with professional care, Regina received a comprehensive hearing assessment with Dr. Debra Hamila.

    “I just love, love, love Dr. Hamila, she is such a professional and loving person. I was so impressed with the office and what she did with the ReSound, I just love her.”

    Like many others, it takes years for people to realize they have a hearing problem. Regina described this moment as life-changing.

    “You don’t realise you’re walking with a rock in your shoe until you’re able to hear again. Especially now I’m a full-time Grammy Nanny, I can hear so much more and it has enriched my life incredibly.”

    What advice would you give to someone who is deliberating on taking the first step towards better hearing?

    “My advice to them would be to have a hearing test. Especially as we age our hearing goes down. It’s really unfortunate that people carry their pride and are not willing to learn to walk with the rock in their shoe. You don’t realise you’re waking with a rock in your shoe until you’re able to hear again.”

    Regina is one of many patients who has been impacted by our audiological services and we are proud to have been able to provide the tool towards better hearing and a lifetime of many more memories.