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COVID’s impact on the ear care category

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Dr. Shelley Borgia

The Coronavirus has had numerous impacts on the ear care category, from new causes of ear health challenges to different ways the industry can stay connected.

Physicians have encountered many cases of patients over the past year who have lost their sense of hearing as a direct link to COVID-19. Tangentially, this commonly also leads to the development of tinnitus, or inner ear ringing. Sometimes the symptoms are temporary, but for some of my patients, the loss is permanent and will require a hearing device or cochlear implant.

And it’s not just the Coronavirus itself causing ear health concerns, it’s also the medications being prescribed to treat it. We’ve long known that medical treatments like chemotherapy can often result in side effects like hearing loss and tinnitus. But recently, studies have demonstrated that medications prescribed for short-term emergency hospital treatments for patients with COVID-19 have been linked to ototoxicity and causing temporary hearing loss (source). Fortunately, this is usually temporary. Patients who are experiencing hearing loss or tinnitus as a direct result of a medication should consult their doctor to determine if it’s helpful to change their dosage.
New trends in the marketplace
Positive news is that even as recently as this year, we’ve seen industry developments in medications that may be able to protect against or even reverse hearing loss for patients. Currently, no FDA-approved drug exists that can do just that, but new research is showing that there may be medications in the future that can better support or fortify the cells and membranes of the inner ear. As with all medications of this type, it will require time and rigorous testing and development before these are credentialized and are able to be introduced in the market, but it’s promising to see the progress trending upwards and I’m looking forward to seeing how this research develops (sources: News Medical Life Sciences and Harvard Medical News).
Seasonal impact on tinnitus, and how this year is different
During the winter season, I often see a significant increase in tinnitus among my patients. This year is no different — but the cause of the symptoms have changed.Typically during cold months, there’s an increase in flu-related congestion and sinus infections, which can trigger symptoms of tinnitus. Fortunately, we’ve experienced a positive decline in these winter-related ailments this year because we’ve taken so many precautions to protect ourselves from germs. But on the flip side, I’ve actually experienced more cases of tinnitus among my patients than ever before — not only as a symptom of COVID-19 itself, but also as a result of new and heightened triggers: pandemic-induced anxiety and stress, feelings of isolation and remote work habits.
With more time at home and more time spent alone, people are developing and focusing more on their tinnitus. Patients who have never experienced inner ear ringing start Googling their symptoms and become very alarmed that the symptoms they’re experiencing are permanent or that they have something much more severe. It’s extremely upsetting to them at first. Instead of laser focusing on the sound, I always encourage patients to reach out to their doctor and set up an appointment to take a diagnostic hearing test.
An increase in younger patients
I’ve seen an overwhelming increase in younger patients in recent months. Young professionals, as young as in their 20s or 30s, are commonly working remotely and hearing new sound sensations, whether that’s triggered by increased headphone use or new anxieties. And so many have no idea why they’re suddenly developing tinnitus or hearing loss. One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding ear health is that tinnitus and hearing loss don’t impact younger patients. But the reality is that anybody can be affected, regardless of age. I just had a patient tell me, “I feel like an 80 year old person but I’m only 20.” These conditions don’t just target a specific person or age, and it’s critical that we protect our ears and keep them healthy. Regardless of your age or background, and if you’re experiencing odd symptoms or not, it’s important to prioritize annual hearing tests and consultations with an ear health specialist.
Options for symptom relief
No matter the cause of your hearing loss or tinnitus, I encourage patients to seek professional guidance and speak with their physicians about treatment options — and to understand it’s not one-size-fits-all. Once we run diagnostic testing and rule out any underlying medical conditions, it’s surprising to patients how many customized ways we can implement different symptom management strategies. Sometimes I’ll work with patients to make changes to their diets, wear hearing protection when they’re working in noisy environments or change up their sleep schedule.Another option that has been widely helpful for patients is taking a supplement like Lipo-Flavonoid, a natural bioflavonoid that helps mitigate tinnitus symptoms. I’ll give patients a sample to start, and when they come in for a one-month check up to reassess their symptoms, most have said they’ve already found great relief and have gone on to purchase the product and continue taking it. Traditionally, I’ll see the most improvement in patients’ tinnitus symptoms (a third to half of their initial rating) once they’ve stuck to a routine program as directed for two to three months. (In fact, if a patient follows the dosage as directed for 60 days and does not experience a reduction in the severity of their tinnitus symptoms, Lipo-Flavonoid will provide that money back.) Another option by the brand that I often recommend to patients is the Sonorest Sleep Tones Machine, a sound machine that enables patients to customize between three sound spectrums (white, pink and brown noise). These sounds help reduce the difference between background and phantom tinnitus noise, and my patients are able to create a more comfortable sleep environment — incredibly important as tinnitus is often triggered most at night.
Virtual vs. in-person engagement
So many small businesses have been impacted by the pandemic, and health facilities are no exception. It’s been gutting for so many practices. My practice has remained safely open throughout, but I’ve certainly experienced a difference in how my patients and I communicate. While I still see many patients in-person, I have many others who keep in touch through virtual sessions and online communications. Many ear surgeries had to be postponed and virtual consultations pose new challenges because physicians can’t look into patients’ ears or sinus passages to determine a treatment plan; but fortunately, there are still many ways we’re able to troubleshoot devices and provide management strategies all through through emails and phone calls.From an industry standpoint, I certainly miss in-person interaction with colleagues from all over the world. I continue to engage in online education and stay up-to-date on credits, but I’m looking forward to being able to connect in-person and build those relationships hopefully soon. The ability to sit in front of a computer for a 3-day virtual session is challenging, but we’re finding ways to stay connected. And most importantly, though we may not be able to talk about it and share learnings and information at industry conferences like we’re used to, the work is still happening and industry challenges are still being tackled in significant ways.
Dr. Shelley Borgia, a board-certified AuD, is the chief audiologist at Lipo-Flavonoid.

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