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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin
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spacing1What do we know about ear health among Indigenous people?

Ear health is very important for hearing, learning, and balance [1]. If ears get damaged, people might:

There are a number of ear diseases, but the most common is otitis media (OM). OM occurs when the middle ear is affected by infection from bacteria or viruses. OM can be very painful and sometimes damages the ear drum; fluid can also leak from the ear (known as 'runny ear'). In another type of OM, fluid builds up in the middle ear without damaging the ear drum ('glue ear'). Both types of OM can cause hearing loss. Risk factors for ear disease include overcrowded homes, exposure to smoking, living in poor conditions, and poor hygiene. Children who go to day-care centres are more likely than others to get ear infections.

Indigenous people, especially children and young adults, have more ear disease and hearing loss than other Australians [1][2].

Diseases of the ear and mastoid (portion of the temporal bone of the skull behind the ear) and/or hearing problems were reported as a long-term health condition by one-in-eight Indigenous people in the 2012-2013 AATSIHS [3]. Ear/hearing problems were reported by 13% of Indigenous males and by 12% of Indigenous females. Ear/hearing problems were reported by the same proportion of Indigenous people in non-remote areas and remote areas (both 12%). Hearing loss was more common in older people.

The 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social survey (NATSISS) found that one-in-ten Indigenous children had ear or hearing problems [4].

The WAACHS found that almost one-in-five Indigenous children had recurring ear infections [5]. Young children (0-11 years) were more likely to have recurring ear infections than older children (12-17 years). Hearing that wasn't normal was reported by their carers for 7% of Indigenous children. There is a strong link between recurring ear infections and abnormal hearing: 28% of children who had recurring ear infections with discharge (runny ears) also had abnormal hearing, compared with 1% of those without ear infections.

Hearing health services in the NT in 2012-13 found that for Indigenous children who received audiology services, the most common condition was OM with effusion (OME) and half of the children had some form of hearing loss [6].

In the NT in 2007-2012, two-in-three Indigenous children who had child health checks with an ear, nose, and throat examination had at least one middle ear condition [7]. For Indigenous children who had a follow-up hearing test, more than one-half had hearing loss in at least one ear.

In 2012-13, the hospitalisation rate for diseases of the ear and mastoid process for Indigenous children aged 0-3 years was slightly lower than for non-Indigenous children and the rate for those aged 4-14 years was 1.6 times higher than for non-Indigenous children [8].


  1. Burrow S, Thomson N (2003) Ear disease and hearing loss. In: Thomson N, ed. The health of Indigenous Australians. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press: 247-272
  2. Couzos S, Metcalf S, Murray R (2008) Ear health. In: Couzos S, Murray R, eds. Aboriginal primary health care: an evidence-based approach. 3rd ed. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press: 308-354
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013) Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health survey: first results, Australia, 2012-13. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social survey, 2008. Retrieved 11 April 2011 from
  5. Zubrick SR, Lawrence DM, Silburn SR, Blair E, Milroy H, Wilkes T, Eades S, D'Antoine H, Read AW, Ishiguchi P, Doyle S (2004) The health of Aboriginal children and young people [volumes 1-4]. Perth: Telethon Institute for Child Health Research
  6. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2014) Stronger futures in the Northern Territory: hearing health services 2012 - 2013. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
  7. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2012) Northern Territory emergency response child health check initiative - follow-up services for oral and ear health: final report 2007-2012. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
  8. Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision (2014) Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: key indicators 2014. Canberra: Productivity Commission
Last updated: 17 June 2015
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