A person placing a hearing aid in the ear

Hearing aids can be a lifesaver. But though the technology has improved in recent years, these essential devices can still sometimes cause annoyance. And for many Americans, the ubiquitous (and critical) mask-wearing during the pandemic has made using hearing aids more challenging than usual.

“We’re seeing patients come in with more complaints related to their hearing aids, and many are reluctant to visit their audiologist to make the necessary adjustments and changes to make wearing them easier,” says Douglas Hildrew, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. If you ignore these seemingly minor annoyances, you’re less likely to wear your hearing aids, which can compound the effects of COVID-19 isolation, he adds.

Here are five common problems that often come up with these devices, how to try to fix them on your own, and when to seek help from your audiologist.

Problem: Hearing Aids Keep Getting Lost

If you wear a behind-the-ear hearing aid, it’s easy for it to snag in the mask loop that goes behind your ear when you remove the mask, says Angela Shoup, PhD, president of the American Academy of Audiology and chief of the division of communicative and vestibular disorders at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Unfortunately, when that hearing aid goes flying, it can get damaged from landing on a hard surface or falling into liquid, or simply be lost entirely.

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The fix: If you wear a mask with ear loops, remove it by pulling the cord off your ear in a downward motion, suggests Catherine Palmer, PhD, director of audiology and hearing aids at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. You can also use a mask with straps that go behind your head, or hook the loops to a headband with buttons.

Another option is a hearing aid lanyard, a cord that attaches to the hearing aid and then is clipped to your clothing, Shoup says. This way, if your hearing aid becomes dislodged, it will just dangle from your clothing until you can grab it. If you wear glasses, you can also buy a hearing aid retainer attachment, which affixes your hearing aid to the arm of your glasses.

When you’re not wearing your hearing aids, keep them safely in their case and don’t just place them in your pocket or on the kitchen counter. “I had a patient once who mistook a hearing aid on her coffee table for a pretzel and tried to take a big bite out of it,” recalls Tricia Ashby-Scabis, AuD, CCC-A, director of audiology practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). It also keeps them out of reach of pets who may love to nosh on your hearing aids—especially important because “the batteries are potentially poisonous,” Palmer says.

Problem: Irritating Feedback Sounds

Hearing a screech, squeal, loud buzz, or hiss? “When sound is amplified and escapes from the ear canal, it can be fed back through the tiny microphone on the device, causing a high-pitched squealing sound referred to as acoustic feedback,” Shoup says.

In a 2018 survey of Consumer Reports members, more than a quarter of respondents who wear hearing aids rated feedback suppression as one of the most important features they looked for when purchasing their current hearing aid.

While newer hearing aid technology has made feedback less of a problem, you may notice it more during the pandemic, Ashby-Scabis says, because the band on your face mask may rub against your hearing aid, causing noise.

The fix: If you’re just noticing feedback but don’t usually have problems, you can try repositioning your hearing aid dome so that it fits in your ear better, Hildrew says.

If that doesn’t work, he advises that you see your audiologist or ENT. When you wear hearing aids, you are more likely to experience wax buildup in your ear canal, which can trigger feedback. (The blockage increases your hearing aid’s amplification, which can cause buzzing.) If your ears are clear, your audiologist can adjust your ear mold—a more secure fit prevents sound from leaking out—or reprogram the device, Shoup adds.  

Problem: Too Much Background Noise

This is a common complaint, especially among new hearing aid users.

“Many people expect that hearing aids will only amplify the sounds they want to hear and not the other background noises around them,” Palmer says. The way hearing aids actually work takes some time to get used to, she adds, but usually resolves once your brain has had time to adapt to all the newly amplified noise—especially if you wear your hearing aids full-time.

Still, even the seemingly minor background noise of being in a grocery store or talking to people outdoors can be harder to handle in this age of masking, Hildrew says. “In the past, you may have been able to filter it out and hear what someone is saying by reading their lips,” he says. “But now with masks, that’s taken away.”

The fix: If you are wearing your hearing aid full-time and are still annoyed by background noise because it prevents you from concentrating, see your audiologist. They can activate the device’s directional microphone, which reduces sensitivity to sound behind you to allow you to focus on hearing what’s in front of you.

But if you’re bothered by background noise because it makes it hard to hear others—for example, a co-worker, or your family at a restaurant—then a remote microphone is a better option, Palmer says. This is a small microphone clipped to the lapel of the person you want to hear, which sends a wireless signal to your hearing aids. It can be found in many newer hearing aids, or added to an older version.

Problem: Dead Hearing Aids

If you’ve ever been to a movie only to have your hearing aid die out midscene, you know too well the frustration that can occur with batteries. During the pandemic, you may drain your batteries especially quickly because you’re using them for hours at a time streaming music or FaceTiming, Ashby-Scabis says. It’s cumbersome to change them, too.

The fix: Consider a hearing aid with rechargeable batteries. These have built-in batteries that don’t require regular removal. In our 2018 survey, more than half of respondents who wear hearing aids rated rechargeable batteries as one of the most important features.

“You simply dock your hearing aids each night on a charging unit, similar to your cell phone,” Ashby-Scabis says.

But if you’re not due for a hearing aid upgrade anytime soon, there are things you can do to prolong battery life. Turn the aid off when you’re not using it, and leave the battery compartment door open overnight, to allow any moisture that has built up to evaporate, she says.

Problem: Sore Ears

The skin right above your ear and its canal is very sensitive and susceptible to irritation.

“Your ear is just skin right on top of cartilage, which doesn’t have good blood supply,” Hildrew says. “And the reality is your ear is prize real estate right now, with eyeglasses, masks, and hearing aids all fighting for space. This causes pressure around the area that can lead to tender, quite painful sores.”

The fix: You can take some pressure off of your ears by using masks that tie behind the head, rather than loop around the ears, Hildrew says.

If you wear glasses, loosen the earpiece slightly to give the area more of a breather. If pain persists, Hildrew recommends seeing your audiologist, who can adjust the tubing in your aid so that it sits farther down behind your ear.