Cold and flu symptoms can build up fluid in the middle part of the ear behind the ear drum, causing ear infection and reduce children’s hearing by dampening sounds. This condition is called otitis media or middle ear infection. In serious cases, the symptoms are rarely missed as children will have very sore ear(s) that need medical treatment. Repeated ear infections can cause a condition called ‘glue ear’ (otitis media with effusion), where a sticky fluid fills up the middle part of the ear instead of air.
How common are ear infections and what is the impact?
Very! Around one in four Australian children will have repeated ear infections in their first few years of life. Every day factors such as attending day care, playing with older siblings, and colder weather increases the risk of having repeated ear infections. This can continue until the day children start school, where one in ten will still have ear infections.
While ear infections are common in younger children and usually clear on their own with time and rest, repeated ear infections should be looked into by a doctor or audiologist.
Reoccurring ear infections can have a significant impact on a child’s speech and language development and early learning. Because middle ear infections feel like the volume being turned down and muffled sound in a child’s ears, learning at school – where background noise in the classroom and speech sources (e.g. teacher) are further away – becomes even more challenging for children with an ear infection.
What are signs to look out for?
If a child appears to:
- demonstrate ‘selective’ hearing,
- ignore what’s being said,
- have a sudden behaviour change,
- turn up the volume of the TV, computer, or music,
- ask to repeat conversations, and/or
- have occasional ear pain
then seeing a doctor or audiologist is highly recommended. Identifying an ear infection is more crucial for children with an existing permanent hearing loss.
Why is treatment important?
Hearing is the gateway to speech and language development. One key challenge in treating glue ear is to identify it in the first place. Given that glue ear may not be associated with any pain, it can be hard for parents or teachers to identify it in children. However, if glue ear persists for a prolonged period of time, it can cause permanent hearing loss or risk causing additional loss on an already existing permanent hearing loss.
What can parents, caregivers and teachers do?
Early intervention through timely diagnosis and management is the key. If a child demonstrates any of the signs above, especially after a head cold or during colder weather, booking a hearing test with an audiologist is recommended.
If the child uses hearing aid(s), their hearing devices may need adjustment to compensate for the hearing loss imposed by the fluid build-up.