The Challenges of Masks With Hearing Loss

During the COVID-19 pandemic, audiologists and other hearing healthcare professionals are concerned about our patients. With social distancing, we are communicating at a distance of six feet which is difficult if not impossible with a loss of hearing. 

Going to the grocery store, socializing with others, or processing and collecting information at a medical appointment is more difficult than it used to be. If conversation is not understood, ask the person to write down what is being said. Request a written summary after any medical visit.

Thinking into the future is important for us so that we can plan for communicating with our patients. Masks pose so many concerns. Talking on the phone while wearing a mask makes conversation sound mushy. Wearing a mask is uncomfortable. Eyeglasses steam up. The list goes on. 

Behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids and cochlear implants (CIs) in particular pose a great risk for difficulty. When one removes glasses, flips off a hat or hood, or removes a scarf, hearing aids can go flying off the ear. An active adult or child may forget to check that the hearing aid is still in place. 

My colleagues and I have already gotten a few calls from patients who lost hearing aids by taking a mask on and off, and that the mask is not comfortable with BTE hearing aids. After all, unless you have a large space between your scalp and ear (which is to say, no one), there’s limited real estate to work with. Anyone who wears both hearing aids and eyeglasses is already aware of the challenges. 

Here are five solutions that may help people who wear BTE hearing aids or CIs. 

1. If you have long hair, pull it back in a bun and, provided the face mask elastics are adjustable and long enough, loop the elastics around the bun.

2. Sew two large buttons onto a soft headband that are lined up with each ear. Looping the elastic around each button will take the strain off of your ears. See a photo of an example here.

3. Similarly, if you know someone who crochets or sews, you can create a face mask extension out of fabric, ribbon, or yarn that is four inches long. Then add buttons onto the extension so the elastics are off your ears..

4. There are YouTube videos on creating masks that tie behind the head, which puts absolutely no pressure on the ears. Here is a great example. This company, founded by a person who uses hearing aids, created a mask that uses a plastic toggle to keep the top elastic in place.

5. A Boy Scout created a plastic extension to help masked healthcare workers take pressure off their ears. But for those of us without access to a 3D printer, try this paper version of a mask extension or use even a paperclip. With everyone wearing masks, even people with typical hearing will find that they have relied on facial cues more than they thought. . To help us all communicate better, remember to speak slowly and distinctly. Ask the person who you are communicating with if they understood what you said.

We all look forward to the future when life becomes a little easier. Until then, be cognizant of the communication difficulties created by wearing a mask. Be patient. Be kind. We all deserve it.

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