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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 the United States who experienced eye puffiness after getting a COVID-19 shot. Local safety organizations are investigating this among other rare allergic reactions to the coronavirus vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech.

Other side effects caused by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are “mostly mild to moderate,” according to a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO).

When side effects occurred among participants, the most common reactions were:

  • Injection-site symptoms, including pain, swelling, and redness.

  • Systemic symptoms such as fatigue, muscle pain, chills, joint pain, and fever.

  • Other symptoms such as headache and nausea.

A WHO report on the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine reported similar side effects.

Eye care professionals respond to COVID-19

Possible side effects aren’t stopping eye care professionals from receiving their COVID-19 vaccines, and in some cases, even administering them themselves. 

In many parts of the world, eye doctors and their staff are being treated as high-priority groups for vaccination.

In guidelines published by the College of Optometrists in the United Kingdom, the organization states, “Optical staff would be treated as frontline health and social care workers, listed as the second-highest priority group in the vaccination programme.”

Where available, these early vaccinations will protect optical staff and their patients by slowing or stopping viral transmission within their practice.

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, United States, 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 Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, United States — 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, eye rubbing, eye pain and eyelid swelling.

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

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 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: Coronavirus (COVID-19): How eyes may play a role in its spread

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.

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