Most pediatricians recognize and treat acute otitis media several times each day. Yet there is wide disagreement about certain aspects of its diagnosis and treatment, despite a large and growing literature on the subject. This review attempts to summarize what is known about acute otitis media in children.


Acute suppurative otitis media is distinguished from secretory (serous) otitis media by the presence of purulent fluid in the middle ear. Pathogenic bacteria may be cultured from the majority of needle aspirates of this purulent fluid. In secretory otitis media, relatively few polymorphonuclear cells are present in the middle ear fluid, which is either thin and straw-colored (serous) or thick and translucent grey (mucoid). The fluid has the chemical characteristics either of a transudate of plasma or of a mucoid secretion, presumably produced by goblet cells and mucous glands which are greatly increased in the middle ear mucosa of patients with secretory otitis media. Cultures of this middle ear fluid are usually negative for pathogenic bacteria and viruses. Suppurative otitis media can be diagnosed positively only by aspiration of purulent fluid from the middle ear, but this procedure is rarely necessary for initial diagnosis and management. Clinical findings helpful in distinguishing suppurative from secretory otitis media are discussed below.


In a study of 847 British children during the first five years of life, 19% had at least one episode of otitis media; one third of these had more than one episode. This was considered to be a minimal estimate in these children, since otorrhea was the chief criterion for diagnosis.

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