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Dr. Craig, I am having more trouble hearing since people have started wearing face masks

Sep 14, 2020

People who have trouble hearing, whether they wear hearing aids or not, typically get some of their speech understanding visually – especially when there is background noise, or several people are talking at the same time. This is commonly referred to as lipreading or speechreading. It is a skill we learn very early in life, but typically don’t use on a regular basis. At least not until later, when we begin to have less than optimal hearing abilities.

Most visual information is taken away if a person we are listening to is wearing a face mask. I have heard a number of patients over the past several months who were managing their hearing loss fairly well, and then suddenly, they started having significantly more trouble once face masks became a part of our daily lives.

One patient, in particular, has had her hearing loss monitored for several years and has always managed to “get by”.  Suddenly she was no longer “getting by”, especially at work.  I’m happy to report that she is now doing much better with her new hearing aids.

Facemasks reduce the amount of sound we are receiving from the person who is speaking. If you have ever had trouble understanding someone who tends to cover their mouth with their hand, it’s a very similar issue. Unfortunately, face masks tend to dampen the higher frequencies more than, the lower frequencies. This makes the person sound more mumbled and less clear.

Some masks are clear around the mouth area, giving minimal assistance to the listener, but the clear area tends to fog up. Also, breathing while wearing them may be more difficult and these masks are not easy to acquire.

The best advice I can give until the masks are no longer in everyday use is to advocate for yourself. Don’t hesitate to ask people to look at you directly when they are talking. And be quick to ask folks to speak up or repeat something if you didn’t understand.

Having less than normal hearing is nothing to be embarrassed about, and it is perfectly ok to politely ask people to repeat things if you don’t understand what they said.


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