Covid vaccines and tinnitus: What we know so far

Thousands of Covid vaccine recipients have reported persistent ringing in their ears after getting the shots and scientists are still investigating the connection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that data does not support a link between the vaccines and the condition known as tinnitus, but the problem has become persistent and widespread enough to merit more attention.

Over 16,000 vaccine takers in the US have reported some form of tinnitus after getting the shots, while a Facebook support group called ‘Tinnitus and Hearing Loss/Impairment after COVID vaccination’ has gained 4,000 members.

The risk would be tiny even if there is a connection, given that 675million vaccine doses have been administered in the US, according to the CDC. 

Tinnitus is a very common condition affected as many as a quarter of American adults

Dr Shaowen Bao, a neurophysiologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson’s College of Medicine and a longtime tinnitus sufferer, set out to investigate the association by sampling nearly 400 members of the Facebook tinnitus group. 

While on the surface the complaints of ringing in the ears may sound like anti-vaccine propaganda, the Facebook from which Dr Bao gleaned his sample maintains that it is ‘pro-vaccine’ and does not parrot anti-vax sentiments such as claims that the shots cause deafness. 

Many of the sufferers reported other symptoms, including dizziness and vertigo after their shots.

This, Dr Bao said, suggests ‘that the vaccine is interacting with pre-existing risk factors for tinnitus. If you have the risk factor, you will probably get it from the first dose.’

Tinnitus after vaccination, most often the first shot, could be caused by inflammation around the brain or spinal cord, Dr Bao said.

Dr Bao has said: ‘Vaccination is an immune response; it could cause inflammation – peripheral inflammation – and peripheral inflammation could affect the brain where the tinnitus is initiated.

Tinnitus is a common condition affecting as many as 25 percent of American adults. 

Patients report a phantom noise in the ear that can be mild as well as extremely disruptive to daily life. 

It can sound like persistent ringing, hissing, roaring, or screeching at low or high volumes.

Dr Bao found that in many cases, the tinnitus was severe, including one man who experienced such persistent ringing that he could no longer hear his radio.

The study, which has not been published, is one of just a few studies looking into the link between vaccinations and tinnitus.

A 2022 study published in the journal Laryngoscope found that the risk of developing tinnitus after the first dose of the Covid vaccine was low – and in fact, the risk was higher after receiving other vaccines such as the flu shot. But just because the risk is low does not mean it is zero.

Dr Gregory Poland, founder and director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minnesota has detailed his ordeal with tinnitus after getting his Covid vaccines, telling NBC News last year that he thought the sudden noise ‘was a dog whistle going off right next to me.’

A lack of CDC-sanctioned research into the little-understood after effect of vaccination has frustrated sufferers like Dr Poland, who said the leading health agency is ‘unconcerned’ about the reports.

The true total number of people with tinnitus linked to a Covid vaccine is murky at best. In addition to the 4,000-person Facebook group, the CDC’s voluntary reporting database shows at least 16,000 entries of people who experienced tinnitus at some point after getting the shot.

Times of onset vary, with some sufferers saying the ringing came on 36 hours after vaccination while others said about a month. 

Some sufferers saw tinnitus come on after their second shots, but most after their first.

The effect may also be a product of long-covid, or the lingering symptoms even after recovering from the disease. The most commonly reported among them include fatigue and brain fog, but researchers at Yale University have begun enrolling participants in a study of long covid symptoms that includes tinnitus.

Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a professor of medicine at Yale University and clinical long Covid researcher, said the tinnitus could be caused by internal vibrations in the ear.

Researchers have not pinpointed a cause for tinnitus generally, though various theories exist. A team at Stanford University’s Medicine Molecular Neurotology Laboratory suggested that forms of tinnitus reflect some damage in the inner ear.

Dr Konstantina Stankovic, an inner ear expert and head and neck surgeon at Stanford said the brain tries to compensate for the damage in the inner ear ‘and starts to make sound of its own.’