Hindsight is a wonderful thing. As we mark one year since the first official lockdowns in March 2020, there's no denying that COVID-19 has turned everyone’s world upside down. With working from home, face masks, social distancing and virtual learning all becoming part of the norm, it’s no surprise that they’ve affected us in many ways — including our eye and ear health.

Using official online search data and customer surveying, we’ll take a look back at the key cultural moments within eye and hearing care over the past year, to understand the impacts they’ve had on our behaviour across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

We’ll also set our sights to some of the more positive changes we can look forward to, now we’re learning to adapt with the times.

Eye health

From updates on opticians’ opening times during lockdowns, to advice on specific eye symptoms and conditions, lots of you have been using search engines to access essential information over the past year. Here’s what the top eye health searches across the UK and Republic of Ireland looked like, and what was going on in the world to explain the trends.

Top 10 eye health searches across the year

KeywordAverage monthly searches
Astigmatism
Stye
Eye twitching
Glaucoma
Pink eye
Cataracts
Chalazion
Swollen eyelid
Bloodshot eyes
Myopia

Top 5 eye health searches over the last four years

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  • Astigmatism
  • Stye
  • Eye twitching
  • Glaucoma

Astigmatism

Taking the lead at the top of the table, searches for astigmatism skyrocketed in July, following a viral image on Twitter and TikTok which showed what vision is like for people with astigmatism.

Pink eye

Also known as conjunctivitis, this fifth-most searched term is most likely connected to COVID-19, with research later linking conjunctivitis symptoms with the virus.

Glaucoma and cataracts

Searches for glaucoma and cataracts remained in the top ten eye health searches throughout the year, as non-urgent treatments for these conditions were postponed or cancelled due to the increasing pressure on the NHS, and some patients were having to shield at home.

Eye twitching and ocular migraines

Both of these conditions appeared in the top 20 searches this year, which are both symptoms of digital eye strain. As we all stepped up our screen time at home, it’s easy to spot the link.

Who was searching for what?

We looked at five key search areas in eye health over the past year — from conditions like glaucoma, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration to cultural topics such as eye pain and blue light. Here are the top areas in the UK that searched for them the most.

Map showing the most searched for eye queries in the most prevalent parts of the UK

Tap the green dots to see the most popular search queries in each region

Beyond the UK, in the Republic of Ireland County Dublin showed a keen interest in cataracts, which could be explained by the cross-border healthcare discussions in the build-up to Brexit. Read more about this here.

Eye symptoms and COVID‑19

As a novel virus, we were still learning about the symptoms and effects COVID-19 had on people. In March and April, during the early stages of the pandemic, searches for ‘eye pain’ and ‘bloodshot eyes’ were on the rise.

Year on year search increases in March and April for ‘eye pain’ and ‘bloodshot eyes’

49%
Eye pain
82%
Bloodshot eyes
March 19 - March 20April 19 - April 20

Interestingly, this preceded official scientific research that later determined conjunctivitis as a potential (but rare) symptom of COVID-19. This could mean that search data might be useful for us to gain important insights in the future. Find out more about the link between eye pain and coronavirus here.

Supporting the NHS

Number of NHS e-Referral ophthalmology appointment bookings in 2020

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06 Jan
20 Jan
03 Feb
17 Feb
02 Mar
16 Mar
30 Mar
13 Apr
27 Apr
11 May
25 May
8 Jun
22 Jun
6 Jul
20 Jul
3 Aug
17 Aug
31 Aug
14 Sep
28 Sep
12 Oct
26 Oct
9 Nov
23 Nov
7 Dec
21 Dec
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As the NHS were facing the rising cases of COVID-19, many non-urgent treatment appointments were cancelled or postponed to help relieve some of the pressure on our even busier hospitals. This explains the sharp dip in ophthalmology bookings we can see in March.1

Urgent treatment for sight-threatening conditions like glaucoma, cataracts, retinal detachment, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration was still a priority for eye experts in order to protect people’s eyesight – but understandably, many people were still nervous to come in for the treatment, resulting in some missed appointments.

In April, the government gave the go-ahead for opticians to remain open for essential and urgent eyecare.2 We were proud to be there to help out so our key workers in the NHS could concentrate on doing what they do best in hospitals across the UK.

Glasses and vision

Coronavision

Heard of coronavision? Last year, this newly-dubbed term came about due to increasing reports of people feeling that their sight had changed during lockdown.3 According to a recent YouGov poll, 1 in 3 people have noticed a deterioration in their eyesight as a result of increased screen use during the pandemic, and 42% of Specsavers customers have noticed a change in their vision since March 2020.4,5 This helps to explain:

83%

83% increase in ‘myopia’ searches (July 2019 // July 2020)

83%

83% increase in ‘reading glasses’ searches (April 2019 // April 2020)

50%

50% increase in ‘varifocals’ searches (September 2019 // September 2020)

86%

86% year on year increase for ‘children’s glasses’ searches (October 2019 // October 2020)

87%

87% of people with children aged between 5 and 16 living at home with them worry that they spend too much time in front of screens but only 37% are aware of guidance around taking breaks from screens every 20 minutes.6

With symptoms of dry eye and eye strain, many people linked it to increased screen time. Whether that was working from home, virtual learning, or ploughing through all those Netflix shows – 60% of people said that they spent more than five hours looking at screens during weekdays.7

Blue light glasses

You probably saw lots of ads and articles about blue light glasses over the last year, too. That’s likely linked to an 812% year on year increase in searches for ‘blue light glasses’ in May, with many people showing concern about digital eye strain and potential damage from blue light. However, there isn’t enough research evidence at the moment to suggest that blue light blocking lenses are beneficial. Read our article ‘Do blue light glasses really work?’ to find out more about this.

Around 20% of people, and 29% of people working from home, were interested in getting glasses to help with screen use since the start of the pandemic – which could range from special lenses that help to limit screen glare to varifocals designed for screen use.8

Buying online

We also saw an increase in people choosing to buy their glasses online, rather than coming into store. 71% of people who bought glasses from us online (between 1 August and 10 September) said that their choice to buy online was influenced by COVID-19.9

The impact of face masks

Searches for ‘how to stop glasses from fogging up’ in 2020

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  • Northern Ireland
  • Scotland
  • Ireland
  • Wales

When warm air hits cold surfaces, it creates a fogging or steaming effect (think opening the oven door with your specs on or coming into a warm building from the cold outdoors). But in 2020, glasses-wearers faced an even bigger issue – foggy glasses from wearing a face mask. Warm breath escaping upwards out of the mask and coming into contact with cooler glasses is the main cause of this issue, with 92% of people who wear glasses experiencing it.10

In July (right around the time mask wearing became mandatory in the UK and Republic of Ireland) searches for ‘how to stop glasses from fogging up’ shot up by a staggering 13400% from the previous year. In fact, the demand for a solution to foggy lenses was so high we sold out of our anti-fog lens wipes just 24 hours after we launched them.

This could also explain the 60% increase in searches around ‘how to put contact lenses in’ (August 2019 / 2020), suggesting that people were thinking about making the switch to contact lenses to avoid the issue altogether. 

Ear health

Now for the ears. Here’s what came out in the top 10 searches for ear health queries last year, with the highest for ‘ear infection’, ‘labyrinthitis’ and ‘earache’ dipping up and down throughout the year.

Top 10 ear health searches across the year

KeywordAverage monthly searches
Ear infection
60,500
Labyrinthitis
40,500
Earache
33,100
Blocked ear
27,000
Mastoiditis
18,100
Ringing in ears
18,100
Glue ear
14,800
Itchy ears
14,800
Perforated eardrum
14,800
Cholesteatoma
12,100

Top 5 ear health queries over the past four years

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  • Ear infection
  • Labyrinthitis
  • Earache
  • Blocked ear

Face masks and hearing loss

Just like with eye health, many of the key moments in hearing care last year centred around the use of face masks and COVID-19 symptoms. We saw a number of awareness campaigns and articles focusing on the challenges for people wearing face masks with hearing loss, which included using clear face masks and accessibility badges to help improve access. Face coverings also created some added difficulties for people who wear hearing aids, with ear loops getting caught on and tugging at hearing aids while in-use.

Long COVID symptoms

As more people started to report ‘long COVID’ symptoms, the second half of the year saw a greater focus on hearing loss and tinnitus as secondary effects of the virus, which led to a 115% increase in June (compared to the previous year) for terms around ‘tinnitus test’. Read our article ‘Can COVID-19 cause hearing loss or tinnitus? here’.

Hearing tests at home

With government guidance to ‘stay at home’, and essential services adapting to new ways of caring, searches for remote and online services were unsurprisingly on the rise. In July, we saw a 173% increase in ‘hearing test at home’ searches (compared to 2019), with many looking for online tools to test their hearing remotely.

Earwax removal

You’ve probably not given too much thought about earwax, really – but in 2020, more and more people took to the web to search for ‘earwax removal’. In fact, in the last 12 months, we’ve removed 66,000cm³ of earwax — that's enough to fill 1,650 egg cups, or to put it another way, the equivalent weight of 150 cans of soup.

After a plateau during the summer months, searches for earwax removal picked back up again in September, and now that earwax syringing is no longer available on the NHS list of free services, people were on the search for private services instead. And in October, the government banned single-use plastic- stemmed cotton buds in the fight against plastic waste, suggesting that people were after different ways to keep their ears clean.

Map showing growth in ‘earwax removal’ searches by country between Jan 2020 and Oct 2020

Tap the green dots to see the change in searches

Hearing aid habits

In the early stages of the pandemic at the start of the year, ‘hearing aid’ searches decreased by 45%, perhaps as concern shifted away from routine hearing care, and towards shielding from the virus.

At the same time, we saw a 235% increase in ‘hearing aid batteries’ searches, showing that existing hearing aid wearers were looking for different ways to access their essential supplies under government ‘stay at home’ guidance, choosing to buy online rather than going in to visit their audiologists.

We also saw an increase in ‘maintenance’ queries, suggesting people were looking to make tweaks and clean their hearing aids at home.

-45%
Hearing aids
235%
Hearing aids batteries

Hearing aid search habits in March/April 2020

So, what’s next?

While it might feel like we're stuck in the same boat at the start of 2021, there are a few things to help us look ahead, as well as the new lockdown exit plans set for the summer.

Brexit shift

With the pandemic remaining the focus of 2020, Brexit took a bit of a backseat in our minds. Cataract patients in the Republic of Ireland were waiting for a cross-border agreement to be made about the cost of cataract surgery carried out in Northern Ireland after Brexit. Luckily, in January 2021, a temporary 12-month scheme was introduced, which means that Irish patients can still access private healthcare in Northern Ireland after Brexit. A good solution while we wait for more decisions to be made.

Advances in tech

June 2020 saw a 417% increase in ‘micro hearing aids’ searches, compared to the year before. This suggests that more people were after the discreet and minimal style to suit a more sociable (when we’re allowed to) and active lifestyle.   

With specs-wearers battling the steam-up when wearing their face masks, anti-fog lens products were in high demand, helping to quickly clear away the troublesome fog-up.

Helping from home

Between lockdown, shielding and social distancing, many services had to go back to the drawing board to make sure people could still get the help they need, in the safest way possible. For example, teleoptometry and remote services over video or phone were increasingly useful, even essential.

In April, we quickly launched our free RemoteCare service in order to help with essential advice on eye and ear health during lockdown. Our experts were available over the phone or by video call to answer any essential queries and make sure people were getting the help they needed.

Now, RemoteCare is an important way for us to keep customers safe, by giving them a quick call to see if we can help remotely before booking an appointment in store. Hearing aid users with certain models can even get their hearing aids tweaked remotely by their audiologist via an app on their phones.

‘Lockdown is affecting all our lives and there are already fears that people are delaying accessing essential health services. This solution removes a number of barriers, especially with health services under immense pressure. We hope that Specsavers RemoteCare, our video consultation service, will help people who might otherwise have gone to their GP or to the local A&E unnecessarily.’ Giles Edmonds Clinical Services Director at Specsavers

While this was a necessary measure during the pandemic, it might signal a change in the way some people choose to receive care now, and in the future:

People who would consider a video call appointment for minor eye conditions (by age)

  • 57% (age 18-44)
  • 49% (45-64)
  • 41% (65+)

People who would consider contact lens trial support by video call (by age)

  • 45% (age 18-44)
  • 42% (45-64)

People who would consider a glasses replacement appt by video call (by age)

  • 37% (age 18-44)
  • 33% (45-64)

People who would consider a hearing aid initial consultation via video call (by age)11

  • 34% (45-64)
  • 17% (65+)
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So despite such an unprecedented year for us all, we’re still here to help whenever you need us. Whether that’s seeing our experts in store, talking to them online or for helpful tips and advice about eye health, contact lenses or hearing care.

Methodology and references

The research for this report was carried out using a variety of methods. All keyword search data has been collected from the official Google search database for the UK and Republic of Ireland (Jan 2017 — Dec 2020). Other references include:

  1. NHS e-Referral Booking data (Oct 2019 - December 2020). Bi-weekly number of ophthalmology appointment bookings in 2020, with 4-week rolling event rate. Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mi-nhs-e-referral-service- open-data/oct-2019-to-december-2020/data-tables [accessed Feb 2021]
  2. College of Optometrists (2020). COVID-19 Urgent Eyecare in England. Available at: https://www.college-optometrists.org/the-college/media-hub/news-listing/nhs-england-covid-19-urgent-eyecare-service-cues.html [accessed Feb 2021]
  3. College of Optometrists (2020). Coronavision warning. Available at: https://www.college-optometrists.org/the-college/media-hub/news-listing/coronavision-eye-warning.html [accessed Feb 2021]
  4. Fight for Sight (2020). More than 1 in 3 people in the UK report deteriorating eyesight due to increasing screen time during pandemic. Available at: https://www.fightforsight.org.uk/news-and-articles/articles/news/screen-time/ [accessed Feb 2021]
  5. Specsavers Customer Panel (2021). 8 Jan - 11 Jan. N = 2,41
  6. Specsavers Customer Panel (2021). 8 Jan - 11 Jan. N = 243
  7. Specsavers Customer Panel (2021). 8 Jan - 11 Jan. N = 2,400
  8. Specsavers Customer Panel (2021). 8 Jan - 11 Jan. N = 2,400
  9. Specsavers Customer Panel (2020). Customers who purchased between 1 August and 10 September 2020 and 24 September and 28 September 2020. N = 179
  10. Specsavers Customer Panel (2020). 10 Dec – 14 Dec. N = 1,572
  11. Specsavers Customer Panel (2020). 25 June – 26 June. 18-44 N = 188. 45-64 N = 565. 65+ N = 498.