About children’s health

22.07.2020
A mother with her kid at a GP

Children get mild illnesses a lot – as much as ten colds a year! There’s also gastro (tummy bug), ear infections and conjunctivitis to contend with, to name just a few commonly-contracted childhood afflictions! It’s an unfortunate part of having an immunity which is still developing as well as picking up ‘bugs’ from school or daycare. Usually, kids will recover from minor illnesses within a few days and be back to their old selves. However, 43% of children live with chronic conditions, which are long-lasting and often require intervention from health professionals.

Childhood chronic conditions

The five leading chronic conditions for children aged 0–14 are:

  • Asthma
  • Hayfever (allergic rhinitis)
  • Anxiety-related problems
  • Psychological development problems
  • Food allergies

Asthma is a respiratory condition which involves chronic inflammation of the airways. It causes episodes of wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing and chest tightness. It’s more common in children with disabilities, and in boys more than girls. While each person’s asthma triggers are unique, cigarette smoke (and second-hand smoke) is a common irritant that makes symptoms worse. Children with asthma usually use a combination of prevention or relief medication through inhalers, as well as managing known triggers. However, the condition can be quite debilitating for some who find triggers in the everyday environment hard to avoid.

Hayfever, also called allergic rhinitis, is a condition which affects 10% of children. A common misconception is that hayfever only strikes in the spring or summer. It can actually affect some sufferers all year around. Most commonly, hayfever causes frequent bouts of sneezing, runny or blocked noses, itching (nose, throat, mouth ears) and headaches. These symptoms can also have unpleasant knock-on effects including:

  • Tiredness
  • Impacts on learning
  • Difficulty controlling asthma
  • Increased sinus or eye infections

Like asthma, hayfever is triggered by what we breathe in. Triggers can include pollen, dustmites, animal dander, mould or cigarette smoke. Treatment usually involves identifying and avoiding triggers, and medications can also be helpful in some cases.

Anxiety affects almost 7% of Australian children (aged 4-17), with boys and girls suffering anxiety-related disorders at similar levels. The most common types include separation anxiety, social phobia and generalised anxiety disorders. Other types of anxiety might include phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. All children will experience anxiety of some extent from time to time especially when trying something new, but parents might notice certain signs and behaviours in a child with chronic anxiety. Beyond Blue recommend that if anxiety is getting in the way of your child enjoying life, it’s time to seek support from a GP. Getting help early for your child is the best thing you can do. Read our Mental Health guide for more on mental health issues and seeking help.

Food allergies are estimated to affect 4-8% of children under the age of 5, and it’s a condition that’s on the rise. While we don’t yet know why the number of kids with food allergies is growing, it’s an area of research interest. The most common food allergens are cow's milk, eggs and peanuts, but tree nuts, sesame, soy, fish, shellfish, and wheat are also common triggers. In fact, these nine foods account for 90% of all food allergies. Food allergies can range from mild swelling or hives to life-threatening anaphylaxis which in rare cases can be fatal. Treatments can involve avoiding exposure to triggers and access to an adrenaline autoinjector (EpiPen) in the case of an allergy attack. If your baby or child is showing symptoms of food allergy, see your GP at the first instance or call 000 if an emergency.

The dental health of Aussie kids – we need to do better

As a country, we need to get better at establishing good dental health in our children. This is important in ensuring kids can eat, speak, sleep and socialise confidently and comfortably. Plus, good oral health in children can also indicate good oral health in adults.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed:

  • 2 in 5 children had experienced decay in their baby teeth
  • 1 in 4 children had experienced decay in their adult teeth.
  • 1 in 4 children (aged 5 to 10) have untreated decay in their baby teeth
  • Around 1 in 5 of children are not usually visiting a dental practitioner once a year.

Avoiding decay can be as simple as following a few steps:

  • Swapping out sugary drinks and snacks and following a healthy diet in general
  • Brushing twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste from 18 months of age, or before then, gently wiping children’s teeth from eruption
  • Flossing, with parental assistance until the age of 10. Start as soon as your child has two teeth in contact.
  • Visiting the dentist for regular check-ups from the age of one, or within six months of the first tooth appearing
  • Including fluoridated tap water as the drink of choice over bottled water more often.

Immunisation matters

Children need to be vaccinated against several different diseases. This helps protect them from potentially becoming very ill while their immune systems are still developing. In Australia, there is a funded  National Immunisation Program (NIP) which sets out all the vaccinations a child should have, from birth to the late teenage years.

Your child’s immunisation data is collated on the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR), and this is important for both record keeping and also gaining access to Government support and early childhood services. Immunisation is popular in Australia, with more than 9 in 10 of two-year-old children fully immunised.

Read more about childhood immunisation and why it’s important, and how immunisation works.

Nutrition for growing bodies

Less than 5% of children aged 5–14 eat enough vegetables! However, we’re much better with fruit, with more than 70% of kids getting enough in their diets. That’s based on data from the 7–18 National Health Survey and the NHMRC guidelines for vegetable consumption. Kids need a balanced diet to help support their growth and development, protect them against infection and fulfil their energy needs.

So how many serves of fruits and veggies do children need per day?

The recommended number of serves of fruit per day is:

  • 1 for ages 2–3
  • 1½ for ages 4–8
  • 2 for ages 9–18.

The minimum recommended number of serves of vegetables and legumes per day is:

  • 2.5 for ages 2–3
  • 4.5 for ages 4–8
  • 5 for ages 9–11
  • 5 for females aged 12–18
  • 5.5 for males aged 12–18.

What else is important to consider in your child’s diet?

  • Where possible, breastmilk is best until at least 12 months of age and exclusively for the first 6 months
  • Provide lots of water. Limit sweetened drinks (both naturally and artificially). This includes sports drinks and waters, cordial, soft drink, iced teas and energy drinks
  • Eat a wide variety from the Five Food Groups daily – veggies, fruit, lean meats and or alternatives, grains and dairy
  • Limit discretionary foods like lollies, cakes, pies, biscuits, chips, takeout, sugary drinks etc. to special occasions
  • Start each day with a healthy breakfast
  • Avoid adding salt to foods, in cooking or at the table
  • Use healthier fat spread alternatives to butter e.g. those based on vegetable oil, avocado or nut butters

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified health care professional.

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