Shingles is an infection that manifests as a painful rash. It’s caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, called the varicella-zoster virus.

Even after you’ve recovered from chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus stays dormant (inactive) in your nervous system. When it reactivates, usually decades later, it causes shingles.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the shingles vaccine, Shingrix, for people ages 50 and over, as well as for people ages 19 and over who have a weakened immune system.

But some people are reluctant to get vaccinated, particularly because of claims that the vaccine can cause ringing in the ears, known medically as tinnitus.

Keep reading to learn more about an alleged link between the shingles vaccine and tinnitus, as well as other side effects it may have.

Shingrix is a new shingles vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017. It’s different from the previously recommended vaccine, Zostavax, which has been discontinued in the United States since 2020.

Some people who received Zostavax claimed to have experienced severe side effects, including hearing loss and tinnitus. This resulted in lawsuits filed against its manufacturer, Merck. These lawsuits are still pending.

Unlike Zostavax, Shingrix doesn’t contain a live virus. Because of that, this vaccine is considered to be much safer. There is no scientific evidence that Shingrix can cause either hearing loss or tinnitus.

Even before Zostavax was discontinued, CDC began recommending Shingrix over Zostavax for the following reasons:

  • Shingrix provides stronger protection than Zostavax.
  • Shingrix isn’t a live vaccine, so it can’t cause the virus to reactivate.
  • Unlike Zostavax, Shingrix is safe for immunocompromised people to use.
  • Shingrix provides a more durable immunity against shingles compared to Zostavax, according to a 2022 study.

But what if you already got Zostavax? Should you worry about tinnitus if you got the Zostavax vaccine before it was discontinued?

As with Shingrix, there is no scientific evidence that Zostavax could cause either hearing loss or tinnitus. However, because Zostavax was a live vaccine, it carried a very small chance of virus reactivation that could cause a rash or shingles.

If you were vaccinated with Zostavax before it was discontinued, it’s recommended you get Shingrix to protect yourself from the virus.

Although there is no scientific evidence that shingles vaccines can cause hearing loss or tinnitus, there are still some side effects that you should be aware of. Because Shingrix and Zostavax have different components, their potential side effects are different.

Side effects of Shingrix

Common side effects of Shingrix are:

  • pain, redness, and swelling at the injection site
  • muscle pain
  • tiredness
  • headache
  • shivering
  • fever
  • upset stomach

These side effects are usually mild or moderate. They typically go away after 2 to 3 days. These side effects are more common in younger people.

Warnings and precautions

In 2021, the FDA issued a warning about a possible association between the Shingrix vaccine and a very rare autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). The FDA also stated that there wasn’t enough evidence to establish a definitive link between the vaccine and GBS. The agency believes that the benefits of the vaccine still outweigh its risks, and the vaccine is still considered safe and effective.

Who shouldn’t get Shingrix

Not everyone should get the shingles vaccine. Be sure to tell the pharmacist or healthcare professional administering the vaccine if you:

  • have had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to any component of the vaccine
  • experienced anaphylaxis after the first dose of Shingrix
  • currently have shingles
  • are pregnant or nursing
  • have never had chickenpox

If you’ve tested negative for the varicella-zoster virus, you should get the chickenpox vaccine instead.

Side effects of Zostavax

Although this vaccine is no longer used, common side effects of Zostavax were:

  • redness, pain, swelling, warmth, or itching at the injection site
  • headache
  • fever
Medical emergency

If you notice any of the following symptoms of a severe allergic reaction, call emergency medical services or go to the nearest emergency room:

  • hives or other rashes
  • swelling of the mouth, tongue, lips, or face
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in the chest
  • fast heartbeat
  • dizziness
  • weakness

If you have any other concerns, call your doctor.

If you or a family member experience severe side effects after vaccination, contact the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) at 800-822-7967 or visit the VAERS website.

The vaccine that’s currently used against shingles, Shingrix, is considered to be safe and effective. It has some side effects, but they are usually mild to moderate and short-lived. There’s no scientific evidence that Shingrix causes tinnitus.

Zostavax, the shingles vaccine used previously and now discontinued, wasn’t as effective as Shingrix. In addition, some people claimed it caused hearing loss and tinnitus, which resulted in lawsuits against its manufacturer. These claims, however, are not supported by scientific evidence.