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Face masks risk ‘misery’ for hard of hearing, warns academic

By Kim Pilling, PA

The use of face masks to limit the spread of Covid-19 risks social isolation for people with hearing difficulties, an academic has warned.

Professor Kevin Munro, of the University of Manchester, believes that tackling the pandemic with increased use of masks could bring an “unintended consequence” of preventing lip reading and hampering speech intelligibility.

The audiologist said: “At the very least, removing visual cues can make communication more difficult because of the exertion required to listen – especially when there is background noise.

“As a result, even if a person can follow what is said, they have fewer mental resources left to think about and recall what they heard.

“And elderly people in hospital who are frail, frightened and distressed, with a likely hearing loss, may have the background hiss of oxygen to contend with when communicating with others who have their mouths covered.

“An unintended consequence of wearing a face mask might be that social distancing is replaced with social isolation and poor mental well-being in older adults with hearing loss.”

He warned that older people would be “especially vulnerable” in hospital as he said N95 and FFP3 respirator masks for frontline health and care professionals are “much more likely” to distort and reduce the level of speech.

Prof Munro added:”Research studies have shown the beneficial effects of surgical masks with a transparent material that allows the mouth to be visualised – however, these are not widely available.

“An alternative to face masks might be for the public to use transparent face shields which allow facial expressions and the mouth to be visualised but these have yet to be evaluated in a clinical trial.

“As governments search for a sure-footed transition to whatever the new norm will be, there is a danger that a policy of encouraging the public to wear face masks may precede the evidence and result in face mask misery for many.”