Keeping Ears Healthy Over Winter

As temperatures drop and we move into cold and flu season it is important to consider ways we can improve children’s ear health over the winter months.

By far the most common cause of hearing loss in young children is otitis media also known as glue ear or middle ear infection. This occurs when the middle ear (the cavity behind the ear drum) becomes inflamed and can fill with fluid. The fluid prevents the sound being transferred to the inner ear.

The middle ear is a chamber that is connected to the back of our nose and throat via a narrow tub called the Eustachian tube. This tube can get blocked by mucous when you have a cold. When the tube is blocked the pressure in the middle ear can’t be released. You may have experienced this when you have flown in a plane or been at high altitudes. We all know that popping sounds when ears unblock. Sometimes you feel it and hear it when you blow your nose. That is the Eustachian tube releasing pressure.

Common symptoms of otitis media include

  • Sore ears
  • Fever
  • Hearing loss
  • Diarrhoea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Discharge from the ears.

Supporting ear health in young children

There are a number of things we can do to decrease the risk of otitis media in young children.

Breast feeding, reducing exposure to tobacco smoke, providing a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables can all reduce the risk. Teaching children to wash their face and hands also reduces the risk of infections occurring.
Supporting healthy middle ear function is as simple as teaching children how to blow their nose correctly and regularly. It won’t cure otitis media but it will help to keep healthy ears healthy.

The prevalence of otitis media is greatly under-estimated in Australia due to limited research and diagnosis. However, studies have indicated that approximately 73% of children aged up to 12 months will have at least one episode of otitis media, and nearly all children will have experienced at least one episode by 3 years old. The rate of burden from hearing loss is 12x higher for Indigenous children.

Ear health and communication

Listening skills are important for children’s speech and language development. Children who communicate well can attend to what others are saying and respond effectively.

The Sounds good to me program includes a whole teaching module on general listening skills, including ear health, with a range of activities and resources for use in your centre or service. More information is available here.

Teach children how to listen with their whole body. Use visual prompts such as pointing to your lips or ears can remind children of what they need to be doing with their ears, eyes, mouth and body in order to be still, quiet and attentive.

Talk about the things that good listeners do (e.g. keep quiet, ears and eyes ready). Ask the children to show you how good they are at listening and talk about why listening carefully is important.

Encourage the children to listen attentively to the sounds around them and make comments about the different sounds they can hear. This is also a good activity to do before you read a story, have news or play a game.

Use a visual prompt such as gestures or a poster to remind the children and refer to it throughout the day.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2018. Australia’s health 2018. Australia’s health series no. 16. AUS 221. Canberra: AIHW