Ever since COVID-19 vaccines rolled out to protect against the virus that has since reshaped the world, there have been some reports of hearing issues following vaccination, according to the World Health Organization.
“Further assessment” is needed on whether reported cases of hearing loss and tinnitus— experiencing intense sounds such as ringing or buzzing in at least one ear — are connected to the COVID-19 vaccines, a WHO newsletter recently published online said.
A total 164 cases of hearing loss and 367 cases of tinnitus from across the globe, including from the U.S., were reported by Feb. 22, 2021, just a few months after the vaccines started rolling out in the U.S., the WHO said. On average, the hearing issues occurred one day after a COVID-19 shot was administered.
The WHO specifically called these reports of the onset of tinnitus and hearing loss after a COVID-19 shot a “signal” — meaning it’s “reported information on a possible causal relationship.” The newsletter added that “a signal is not only uncertain but also preliminary in nature.”
Mayo Clinic vaccinologist Dr. Greg Poland, who developed tinnitus in both ears shortly after getting his second COVID-19 shot, has previously said the potential connection “deserves attention,” according to MedPage Today. He told ABC 15 that the WHO’s newsletter is a “first step.”
Here’s what other experts make of the WHO’s newsletter:
‘Important’ but causal relationship not established
A few health experts who spoke with McClatchy News seemed slightly skeptical of the WHO’s report but believe it should be followed up with further investigation.
The 172 cases of hearing loss were reported in 10 countries, including 66 reports coming from the U.S., according to the WHO. Of the 367 reports of tinnitus, 113 cases were based in the U.S. out of 27 countries. These cases were detected by the Uppsala Monitoring Centre.
Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor at Berkeley and member of the school’s infectious diseases and vaccinology division, emphasized in a statement to McClatchy News that the WHO’s newsletter didn’t establish a causal relationship between COVID-19 vaccines and hearing troubles as it relied on what’s called “passive surveillance.”
“That is, there appeared to be more people reporting tinnitus and hearing loss than would be expected from a population not vaccinated,” he said. “Clearly, this needs to be followed up by further investigation using active surveillance.”
“Passive surveillance can raise questions about associations but cannot prove causality. That’s where actively looking for an association (active surveillance) can be helpful.”
Swartzberg added that if there is a causal relationship between vaccines and hearing issues, “it must be very, very rare” due to how much COVID-19 vaccines have been studied.
Dr. Elliott Kozin, an assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School and a surgeon at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, called the WHO’s report “important.”
However, he told McClatchy “there are clear limitations…as symptoms are typically self-reported, which may lead to under- or over-estimation of potential complications.”
Kozin pointed out how “tinnitus and hearing loss are common in the general population” and “can occur due to a variety of factors that may not be directly vaccine related.”
Roughly 30 million people living in the U.S. 12 and older, 13%, have lost hearing in both ears, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Additionally, about 25 million people in the U.S., 10%, have had tinnitus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
Tinnitus also can be a symptom of age-related hearing loss, according to Harvard Health.
“It is possible that hearing loss and tinnitus could be associated with the COVID-19 vaccination,” Kozin said. But he added that “high-quality studies specifically on the auditory system are necessary to better understand” if COVID-19 vaccines can potentially cause hearing issues.
Dr. Christopher M. Welch, a clinical assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Michigan Medicine, told McClatchy News that reports of hearing issues following a COVID-19 vaccination — as well as infection — have been investigated by some researchers already.
In 2021, Texas Roadhouse CEO Kent Taylor, 65, took his life after getting COVID-19 and developing “severe tinnitus” after the infection, CNBC reported. At the time, his family said “the suffering that greatly intensified in recent days became unbearable.”
Welch said that “there have been numerous case reports documenting both sudden hearing loss and tinnitus, but given the magnitude of the vaccination campaign, it has been challenging to determine (just like the reports for Bell’s palsy or other adverse effects) whether the occurrences are what we would normally expect to see and that COVID-19 or the vaccine were just coincidental, or whether there was a true link.”
In terms of hearing loss, he pointed to one study in which researchers “noted a two-fold increase in sudden hearing loss during a 30-day period during the pandemic, but they could not discern if there was any causative relationship.”
This study was published October 2021 in the National Library of Medicine.
“Tinnitus is probably more complicated,” Welch said. “Tinnitus is typically a symptom of hearing loss, but is more common in headache, and specifically migraine patients. The cause is not well understood.”
CDC on tinnitus reports
CDC spokesperson Curtis Gill told McClatchy News that the agency is aware of tinnitus reports following COVID-19 vaccination.
“Tinnitus is a common condition, heterogenous in nature, and has many causes and risk factors,” Gill said. “Hundreds of millions of people have received mRNA COVID-19 vaccination under the most intensive monitoring in U.S. history.”
“Currently, the data from safety monitoring are not sufficient to conclude that a causal relationship exists between vaccination and tinnitus.”
Dr. Kozin said that more research is needed to understand whether COVID-19 vaccines are a causative factor for hearing issues as well as “the risk for such symptoms.”
“For example, if the risk is one in ten million versus one in ten that a COVID-19 vaccination could result in a hearing deficit, then the risk conversation among health care providers and patients would be very different,” he added.
“Future studies are needed to understand possible causation and the magnitude of the risk.”
Given that the WHO’s report only includes hearing loss and tinnitus cases reported by February 2021, Welch was asked about the potential of more case reports since then.
“There are likely more cases, but again, it may be simply coincidental given the massive vaccination campaign undertaken,” he said. “Significantly more research and analysis will be needed to sort out if there is a relationship in these cases.”
In the U.S., more than 218 million people are fully vaccinated and more than 98 million people have gotten a booster dose, according to the CDC.