No, COVID-19 vaccines don't cause hearing problems

A comprehensive study of vaccine side effects found no connection between any COVID-19 vaccine and hearing loss
Grant Currin
The Covid-19 vaccines do not cause hearing loss.iStock/Nes

Do COVID-19 vaccines cause hearing loss?

There’s no evidence to think so, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The team of researchers behind the paper analyzed a large database of vaccine side effects reported to the CDC. They also looked at detailed case studies from nearly two dozen patients who sought treatment for hearing loss in the weeks after they were vaccinated.

The analysis “did not suggest an association between COVID-19 vaccination and an increased incidence of hearing loss compared with the expected incidence in the general population,” according to the paper.

People who got the vaccine didn’t have higher rates of hearing loss than normal.

Sudden hearing loss is not an incredibly rare medical problem. For every 100,000 people in the United States, between 11 and 77 people typically experience sudden hearing loss every year. The researchers used that range, which is so wide partly because older people are far more prone to the condition than younger people, to determine if the rate of sudden hearing loss after receiving the vaccine was suspiciously high.

For data on hearing loss in vaccinated people, they turned to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS), which is a database where anyone can report what they believe to be a side effect. The researchers looked for all reports of sudden-onset hearing problems that happened in the three weeks after someone received a vaccine. Since anyone can upload information to the CDC’s database, the researchers only included cases that had been confirmed through clinical testing or diagnosed by a doctor.

Once those data were collected, the researchers compared the number of likely cases — 555 — to the number of people who’d received the vaccine during their study period, the first seven months that vaccines were available. They concluded that for every 100,000 people who received the vaccine, the rate of hearing loss in recently vaccinated people was between 0.6 and 28 cases per year.

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That means the people who did experience hearing loss after getting a vaccine — and those people do exist — would probably have had the same problem whether they got the vaccine or not. 

The lipid nanoparticles don’t seem to cause hearing loss either

Concerns about hearing loss aren’t unusual when a new vaccine is rolled out. When the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine was new, there were similar reports of sudden-onset hearing loss. The same thing occasionally happens with the flu vaccine. These worries aren’t unreasonable. In fact, it was a peer-reviewed study by researchers in South Korea that brought widespread attention to concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine and hearing loss.

One reason some people have been especially concerned about the current vaccine is that two of the most popular vaccines — by drugmakers Moderna and Pfizer — use a relatively new technology called mRNA to prepare the body for future invasion by SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19. When it comes to hearing loss, the major concern hasn’t been the mRNA itself but rather the microscopic packaging that protects the genetic material until it makes it into cells where it gets to work making antibodies.

In order to see if these lipid nanoparticles might be causing problems, the researchers compared rates of sudden hearing loss in people who got Moderna or Pfizer vaccines with rates in people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which does not have that component.

They found that people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine actually showed a slightly higher level of hearing loss than those who received either of the mRNA vaccines, though all three numbers were below expected baselines.

Researchers are still waiting on data to directly compare these symptoms in people who got the vaccine with people who did not get the vaccine, but this large study of the most comprehensive database of vaccine side effects makes it clear that there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines cause hearing problems.