Having a hard time hearing? Doctors say you may not have noticed without the pandemic


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Audiology experts say the pandemic is making some people realize they may have concerns about hearing loss sooner than they may have expected.

Before non-essential medical procedures and appointments were suspended, Dr. Dola Conceicao, an audiologist at Rhode Island Hospital, recalls a nurse that came to her “absolutely desperate to hear.”

“She was on the frontlines and she needed her hearing aids to work for her, but they had stopped working,” Dr. Conceicao said. “She came the day before the clinic was supposed to close.”

Dr. Conceicao said when the clinic reopened, she noticed a “different population” of patient referrals than in years past.

“We have seen a steady flow of referrals for adults who are concerned about their hearing,” Dr. Conceicao said. “But even more so for adults who already have a known hearing loss who are wearing hearing instruments, and feeling like their hearing instruments suddenly aren’t enough.”

Dr. Conceicao says public health measures like masks and social distancing have helped some people figure out they had problems with their hearing faster than they normally would. She notes the average adult will have a hearing loss for about seven years before they seek evaluation and treatment.

Dr. Conceicao says for most, hearing loss is a normal part of aging and typically happens when people approach their sixties.

“So, some individuals in their fifties might notice that they’re struggling to hear, and put it off until they’re in their sixties,” Dr. Conceicao said.

She says this is in part because people are usually able to cope with lip-reading, and other cues like getting physically closer to hear someone speaking.

“Social distancing prevents us from getting close to the person that’s speaking, and the masks may also muffle what is being said,” Dr. Conceicao said. “So, there’s just a whole bunch of things going on, creating kind of, this perfect storm of, ‘Oh, my hearing suddenly isn’t good enough.'”

Dr. Conceicao says hearing loss is usually gradual and typically impacts the ability to hear consonant sounds first.

“Those consonants are very important because they convey the meaning of words,” Dr. Conceicao said. “You need to know whether somebody said ‘bike’ or ‘bite’ or ‘fail’ or ‘sail.’ The words sound almost exactly alike if you have any degree of hearing loss, even a very slight or mild hearing loss for those sounds.”

Dr. Conceicao says one’s lifestyle or daily work can help or hurt someone’s ability to realize their hearing is not functional. She adds that if you get to a point where your hearing is not adequate or meeting daily demands, it’s time to get evaluated.

“There’s an old saying, ‘I can’t hear a thing without my glasses,’ and there’s actually a lot of truth to that,” Dr. Conceicao said. “COVID has definitely put some barriers up for individuals who really need the lip-reading cues in order to understand what’s being said and really kind of driven them in a direction to seek care much earlier.”

Mask-wearing in the pandemic has also had another effect on the hearing impaired: more claims for lost hearing aids.

“What’s happening is the masks are getting caught on the hearing instruments that sit up behind the ear, and those instruments are then being flung away when the person pulls of the mask,” she said.

A third and positive effect during the pandemic, however, is fewer incidents of ear infections in pediatric patients, according to Dr. Conceicao. She says ear infections, which can cause fluid in ear canals, are the leading cause of hearing loss in children.

“Children have just been pretty healthy,” Dr. Conceicao said. “We’ve seen a lot less, in terms of the hearing loss related to ear infections.”

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