COVID-19 Causing Communication Challenges


COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that’s documented to cause a host of short and long-term health problems and in some cases death. Audiologists are finding the disease is affecting hearing and communication for a variety of reasons.

Palomar Health’s Chief Audiologist Dr. David Illich says one problem he’s diagnosing is blockage in the middle ear cavity caused by fluid buildup due to people laying in the prone position for an extended period of time as they recover from the disease. Another is sensory damage caused by some of the COVID-19 treatment drugs. These conditions are mostly temporary and will improve with time or medications.

He’s also finding COVID-19 can cause permanent nerve damage, leading to high frequency hearing loss which can cause communication issues. He says it leads some of his patients to say, “I can hear but I don’t understand what people are saying.”

He attributes this to a decoding issue that’s further exacerbated by people wearing face coverings. Face coverings have shown to reduce speech clarity by about 20% (12 decibels), which is manageable if you are young and healthy but if you are experiencing mental decline and/or hearing loss, the results can leave you non-communicative.

Before you use this as an excuse not to wear face masks as suggested/required by health officials, Dr. Illich has a solution that he’s found to be effective. He recommends wearing a see-through mask, especially for anyone communicating with older adults. Clear masks help others decode your speech because they can see your lips and facial expressions. He says he recently gave a clear mask to one of his patients (as he is doing for all his patients) who said she had given up talking with her husband when they left the house because she couldn’t understand him with his mask on. Dr. Illich called her a week later and she told him “it’s like night and day; we can actually talk to each other.”

Another detriment to communication that COVID-19 is causing stems from isolation. “The number one thing for cognitive function is interaction,” Dr. Illich said. As we stay isolated in our homes, people are communicating less and experiencing cognitive decline. Dr. Illich says studies are showing cognitive declines are happening at a higher rate now than before COVID-19 became a health issue. He believes that wearing clear masks will help reduce that decline.

Dr. Illich also recommends using the free “eyeHear” app on smartphones when speaking with someone who has hearing challenges. It uses voice recognition technology to transcribe your voice into large print on your phone, similar to closed caption TV.

Photo caption: Dr. Illich shows the clear masks he gives to his patients to aid in communication.

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