Surgical Masks and Hearing Loss: COVID-19

Wow! It’s December already, and though we’re past 8 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re still learning something new each day. We wanted to share new data that shows how surgical masks degrade speech quality, affecting those with hearing loss the most. Recent studies show mask use can render speech close to unintelligible for many patients with hearing loss.

What’s Up, masks?

The COVID-19 virus has definitely had an impact on clinician-patient communication, especially fo those with hearing loss. In fact, the trajectory of hearing loss and the infection fatality by age distribution tell a very important story, one we may not have thought of. Many of the people who have fallen victim to the virus and have been hospitalized are older adults, which coincidentally means many of them suffer from hearing loss. These patients tend to be unaccompanied by family members, are frail, have a variety of chronic conditions, and are likely there without any hearing assistance. 

Therefore, their struggle to understand speech is further exacerbated by the use of masks, which of course are a necessity to help minimize the spread of the virus. Surgical mask use presents two challenges for patients with hearing loss when it comes to speech comprehension:

1: The patient can’t facilitate comprehension by lip-reading
2: The healthcare provider’s voice is muffled and distorted

The data we’re referencing comes from a study that focused on how masks distort sound.

How Does a Surgical Mask Impact the Speech Signal?

The study used a GRAS head and torso simulator to play white noise through an artificial mouth, with a mask on, and the output acoustic signal was measured by a microphone 2 meters away. There were 4 different masks used for this study:

The study found that all surgical masks types essentially worked as a low-pass filter. This means the masks ended up reducing high frequencies spoken by the wearer, with the decibel (dB) level of attenuation ranging from 3-4 dB for a simple mask, to close to 12 dB for the N95 masks. Basically, mask use led to speech quality degradation, especially when in combination with room noise/reverberation and the absence of visual cues, and it renders speech close to unintelligible for many.

Addressing the Issue

Because of this, the use of effective communication strategies becomes more important than ever. Here are a few ways that patients with hearing loss and their physicians can bridge the gap to ensure communication is functioning at its best:

  • Speak Slowly
  • Be sure to obtain each other’s attention
  • Reduce any noise when possible
  • Rephrase when not understood
  • Do not shout, over-emphasize, or exaggerate your words

We know surgical masks have an effect on patients with hearing loss when attempting to comprehend speech, and that’s a real challenge. As always, we’re here to help. If you feel you’re experiencing hearing loss, need help with your hearing aids, or have any questions, give us a call and set up and appointment. Here at Longmont Hearing and Tinnitus Center, we’re dedicated to helping our patients every step of the way.

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