What to do if you’re having trouble hearing people through a mask?

Face masks have been one of the most prominent parts of our year, but still, after ten years of wearing them, we’re finding it hard to get used to them. Miscommunication is very common with masks on, and this is accentuated on people with hearing loss and in kids. Today, we’ll talk a little bit about this problem and how to handle it, and we’ll briefly explain why face masks are so important during the COVID-19 pandemic

A new problem to come from the pandemic: we can’t hear each other

Face masks are extremely important right now to keep the virus transmission under control, but they can be a little uncomfortable even though we’ve been wearing them for over ten months now. They have been making human contact a little harder, which is accentuated by the social distancing measures we’ve had to take.

However, beyond just having to yell at each other a little louder to communicate properly, people with hearing loss can be more challenged by this change. Masks not only decrease the volume of your voice and clarity of your speech, but they also cover most of your face, making it harder to read your lips and facial expressions.

Masks can reduce your volume by 4 to 12 decibels, according to Eryn Staats, an audiology manager in the department of otolaryngology at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. This will depend on the materials with which the mask is made.

This problem is more prevalent in people over 70 years old who, according to a professor of health policy and medicine at New York University, in 70% suffer from some form of hearing loss. Jan Blustein, the professor, claims that they are the age group who struggles the most to communicate during social situations even before masks were being used.

Because the communication challenges with healthcare providers is a big concern among experts, as this can interfere with the quality of the care they would receive,  clinicians have been advocating for clear masks and face shields to be used.

Staats says that lipreading helps to communicate better in these people, and that face shields can be useful in situations where people are struggling to hear or understand each other, be it during social or work situations, or at the doctor’s office. However, face shields can’t be substitutes for face masks, and their use has only been recommended in combination with the latter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Another option is the use of whiteboards or tablets. Michael McKee, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, says that these devices can be helpful in healthcare settings and that telemedicine can be a good alternative for those with hearing loss, as it would allow them to read lips. McKee was born with hearing loss. However, he says that outside the healthcare field, if other people wear clear masks that would help those with hearing loss, explaining that the people with hearing loss aren’t the ones who have to wear special masks but everyone else around them.

When trying to communicate with people with this condition, their level of hearing loss will determine which strategy to use. For example, only eliminating the background noise from fans or dishwashers, as well as turning down the volume of the TV or radio, could help communicate better with someone with a mild hearing loss.

For those with mild to moderate hearing loss, getting their attention first is important, which you can do by waving at them. Enunciating clearly, but not exaggerating the speech, is important, as well as talking slowly. Handheld amplification devices are also a good option, which amplifies the sound while the person with hearing loss wears headphones or earbuds.

Another technological solution would be to download speech detection apps, which transcribes what is being said into text in real-time. If you have a hard time understanding someone with a mask, just hold your phone close to them and you’ll be able to read what they’re saying. Another app that can be useful is one that amplifies the sound of someone speaking to you.


Face masks and COVID-19

Since the beginning of the year, people began to buy all types of medical supplies in bulk and wholesale, including surgical masks, KN95 masks, and N95 masks, with some of the most purchased ones being the 3M N95 masks in the models 3M 8511, 3M 8210, and 3M 1860. They have been so requested that now they’re very difficult to find for sale.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that is transmitted from one person to another through respiratory droplets that contain the virus. When an uninfected person inhales these viral particles, they can become infected and develop COVID-19, which can range from asymptomatic cases to extremely severe ones with a need for mechanical ventilation.

Different masks are necessary for different settings. For example, in healthcare settings, N95 respirators are the best option for virus protection, as they have very high antiviral filtering properties. Besides viruses like the flu and the coronavirus, they can also filter out dust, smoke, pollen, and other particles with a very small size.

However, for public settings where people can easily practice social distancing, and where no close exposure to confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases is necessary, reusable cloth masks are the most widely used type of mask in the United States. The CDC only recommends these masks for the general public in the USA as an effort to alleviate the shortages of medical-grade masks and respirators experienced across the country.

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