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The COVID-19 vaccine: Will it affect your vision?

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Fear of side effects, including how it may affect vision, ranks as the primary reason that some Americans remain hesitant to be vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19. However, no evidence has surfaced yet that any widespread side effects from the vaccines are related to vision.

It’s worth noting, though, that at least one isolated incident of an eye-related side effect has been reported — a health care worker in Alaska who experienced eye puffiness after getting a COVID-19 shot. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating this among other rare allergic reactions to the coronavirus vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common side effects from coronavirus vaccines include:

  •  Arm pain and swelling where the shot was injected

  • Fever, chills, tiredness and headache 

 “It’s totally normal to experience side effects from COVID-19 vaccines,” according to Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Eye care professionals respond to COVID-19

Those and other side effects aren’t stopping eye care professionals in the U.S. from rolling up their sleeves to receive COVID-19 shots or to even administer the vaccinations.

In a Dec. 2, 2020, letter to the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. William Reynolds, president of the American Optometric Association, wrote that the organization’s members “stand ready to assist the public and aid the nation’s health care community in the response to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Ophthalmologists in the U.S. also are engaged in the fight against COVID-19.

Dr. William Culbertson, professor of ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, told Ophthalmology Times that ophthalmologists and staff at the institute started receiving vaccinations Dec. 15, 2020.

“Although we are not frontline health care providers, we all see patients face to face at the slit lamp and in surgery, so we have all been at substantial risk until we get vaccinated,” Culbertson said. 

In addition, at least one ophthalmologist — Dr. Jorge Arroyo of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center — participated in the trial of the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19. And it was a Chinese ophthalmologist who, in December 2019, warned the world about what came to be known as COVID-19; the disease wound up causing his death.

Eye problems among children with COVID-19

While COVID-19 vaccines haven’t been tied to serious vision issues, researchers have detected eye problems in a number of children with the disease itself. One study showed nearly one-fourth of children at a Chinese hospital who were treated in January, February and March 2020 for COVID-19 had developed mild eye problems. Those problems included eye discharge associated with conjunctivitis (pink eye), eye rubbing, eye pain and eyelid swelling.

But the study was limited. Researchers reviewed the conditions of only 216 pediatric patients.

SEE RELATED: Eye problems that could be related to COVID

Eye problems connected to other vaccines

While the COVID-19 vaccines have, so far, not caused worrisome side effects related to vision, vaccines for several other conditions have been linked to eye and vision problems. Here’s a rundown of those issues:

Seasonal flu vaccine

In rare cases, some patients who’ve received the flu vaccine experienced mild symptoms like eye redness, eye pain and blurred vision.

Common side effects of the flu vaccine include soreness, redness or swelling where the injection is given, along with headache, fever, nausea and muscle aches.  

Measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine

A study published in 2008 concluded that optic neuritis is a rare complication from the vaccine for the measles-rubella (MR) vaccine. Optic neuritis is an inflammation affecting the optic nerve that sends signals from the back of the eye to the brain. 

Common side effects of the MMR vaccine include fever, mild rash, swollen cheek or neck glands, and temporary joint pain (mostly in teenage and adult females). Rare side effects include short-term seizures and low platelet count. In extremely rare cases, the MMR vaccine can cause deafness, long-term seizures, coma or brain damage. 

Chickenpox and shingles vaccines

One study found rare instances of corneal inflammation in children (chickenpox) and adults (shingles) after they received the zoster virus vaccine for both conditions. 

Common side effects from the chickenpox vaccine include sore arm and mild rash where the shot was injected, temporary joint pain and stiffness, and fever. For the shingles vaccine, common side effects are sore arm, redness and swelling at the injection site, tiredness, muscle pain, headache, shivering, fever, stomach pain and nausea.

Measles can cause eye problems

Around the world, measles causes as many as 60,000 cases of blindness each year, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Other potential vision issues associated with measles include:

  • Red and watery eyes triggered by pink eye (conjunctivitis)

  • Keratitis, an infection of the cornea

  • Scarring of the cornea

  • Retinopathy, which damages the retina and can lead to temporary or permanent vision loss

  • Optic neuritis

  • Childhood blindness

The measles vaccine is the best option for preventing the disease and, therefore, preventing measles-related vision problems. 

SEE RELATED: 5 ways measles can affect eyesight

Shingles vaccine can prevent vision problems

The AAO recommends that people 50 and over get the shingles vaccine to prevent an “extremely painful and disfiguring complication” called herpes zoster ophthalmicus, which can cause blindness.

If the shingles virus infects the nerves of the eye, the AAO says it can lead to:

SEE RELATED: Shingles in the eye (ocular shingles)

The bottom line

While various vaccines can cause, mostly mild, side effects connected to vision, there’s no scientific evidence that COVID-19 vaccines trigger eye-related side effects. Experts say the benefits of being vaccinated against COVID-19 outweigh the potential side effects. 

READ NEXT: Controversial use of ivermectin for treatment of COVID-19

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