As everyone who got the COVID-19 vaccine knows, health authorities wanted to be very sure that the shots, and subsequent boosters, were safe and effective before authorizing them for the public. As occasional side effects have emerged, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has responded in real time to communicate the potential risks associated with the available vaccines—which is why the agency recently looked into whether the shot could be linked to tinnitus, a common problem that is characterized by hearing ringing or other noises in one or both of the ears. To do so, they used data from the Vaccine Safety Datalink, which includes information on patients who have received the original COVID-19 shots and the bivalent boosters.
More than 18,700 people say they experienced tinnitus after getting a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which, importantly, relies on self-reported data. (This means that the numbers are based on experiences people report having, not experiences observed by a medical professional. Sadly, some people may choose to report something fishy even if they’re not totally sure it’s linked to the vaccine, or even if it hasn’t happened to them at all, to cast doubt about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.)
Even still, the sheer number of these reports have led many experts to question whether the vaccines could be associated with the issue. Getting to the bottom of that is tricky for a number of reasons, Aaron Pearlman, MD, FACS, an associate professor of otolaryngology at Weill Cornell Medical College, tells SELF. “The root cause of tinnitus in the general population is not clearly understood, so linking it with…the COVID-19 vaccination is even more problematic,” he says.
What we do know about tinnitus: It can be pretty irritating. “Patients’ perception of the sound can be extremely varied with descriptions such as ringing, humming, buzzing, crackling, and roaring, to name a few,” Dr. Pearlman says. And it affects a lot of people for various reasons—which means the fact that thousands reportedly experienced the issue after receiving the COVID vaccine might just come down to the numbers, according to a statement from the CDC provided to SELF. (The National Institutes of Health reports that up to a quarter of adults may have tinnitus.)
“Because so many people have been vaccinated and because tinnitus is so common in the population…cases are expected, with some expected to occur shortly after vaccination,” the statement says.
To be sure the vaccine wasn’t directly causing the problem, researchers at the CDC performed an experiment: They monitored millions of recently vaxxed people for 70 days to determine whether there were any bizarre clusters of tinnitus among them, and there weren’t.
To sum up: Though determining the relationship between the COVID-19 vaccine and tinnitus is a bit of a chicken-and-egg game, the shots have been proven to be safe and effective, and the benefits of staying up-to-date on all your vaccines certainly outweigh the risks of severe COVID-19 infection.
And if you’ve been newly experiencing strange sounds in your ears: There’s no cure for tinnitus unless it occurs in conjunction with hearing loss that can be treated, but the good news is that your body should eventually adjust to it. (If you’ve been diagnosed with tinnitus and it is making certain tasks difficult—like falling asleep at night, for example—Dr. Pearlman suggests making certain adjustments, like using a fan or white noise machine at night.)
“Fortunately, in most patients who develop tinnitus, it will fade into the background within a few months,” Dr. Pearlman says. “They may still hear it when it is quiet, but, usually, it will not be intrusive in daily life.”