Secretory otitis media is an effusion in the middle ear resulting from incomplete resolution of acute otitis media or obstruction of the eustachian tube without infection. Symptoms include hearing loss and a sense of fullness or pressure in the ear. Diagnosis is based on appearance of the tympanic membrane and sometimes on tympanometry. Most cases resolve in 2 to 3 wk. If there is no improvement in 1 to 3 mo, some form of myringotomy is indicated, usually with insertion of a tympanostomy tube. Antibiotics and decongestants are not effective.
Normally, the middle ear is ventilated 3 to 4 times/min as the eustachian tube opens during swallowing, and O2 is absorbed by blood in the vessels of the middle ear mucous membrane. If patency of the eustachian tube is impaired, a relative negative pressure develops within the middle ear, which can lead to fluid accumulation. This fluid may cause hearing loss.
Secretory otitis media is a common sequela to acute otitis media in children (often identified on routine ear recheck) and may persist for weeks to months. In other cases, eustachian tube obstruction may be secondary to inflammatory processes in the nasopharynx, allergies, hypertrophic adenoids or other obstructive lymphoid aggregations on the torus of the eustachian tube and in the Rosenmüller fossa, or benign or malignant tumors. The effusion may be sterile or (more commonly) contain pathogenic bacteria sometimes as a biofilm, although inflammation is not observed.
Symptoms and Signs
Patients may report no symptoms, but some (or their family members) note hearing loss. Patients may experience a feeling of fullness, pressure, or popping in the ear with swallowing. Otalgia is rare.
Various possible changes to the tympanic membrane (TM) include an amber or gray color, displacement of the light reflex, mild to severe retraction, and accentuated landmarks. On air insufflation, the TM may be immobile. An air-fluid level or bubbles of air may be visible through the TM.
Diagnosis is clinical. Tympanometry may be done to confirm middle ear effusion. Adults and adolescents must undergo nasopharyngeal examination to exclude malignant or benign tumors.
For most patients, watchful waiting is all that is required. Antibiotics and decongestants are not helpful. For patients in whom allergies are clearly involved, antihistamines and topical corticosteroids may be helpful.
If no improvement occurs in 1 to 3 mo, myringotomy may be done for aspiration of fluid and insertion of a tympanostomy tube, which allows ventilation of the middle ear and temporarily ameliorates eustachian tube obstruction, regardless of cause. Tympanostomy tubes may be inserted for persistent conductive hearing loss or to help prevent recurrence of acute otitis media.
Occasionally, the middle ear is temporarily ventilated with the Valsalva maneuver or politzerization. To do the Valsalva maneuver, patients keep their mouth closed and try to forcibly blow air out through their pinched nostrils (ie, popping the ear). To do politzerization, the physician blows air with a special syringe (middle ear inflator) into one of the patient's nostrils and blocks the other while the patient swallows. This forces the air into the eustachian tube and middle ear. Neither procedure should be done if the patient has a cold and rhinorrhea.
Persistent, recurrent secretory otitis media may require correction of underlying nasopharyngeal conditions. Children may benefit from adenoidectomy, including the removal of the central adenoid mass as well as lymphoid aggregations on the torus of the eustachian tube and in the Rosenmüller fossa. Antibiotics should be given for bacterial rhinitis, sinusitis, and nasopharyngitis. Demonstrated allergens should be eliminated from the patient's environment and immunotherapy should be considered.
Last full review/revision December 2012 by Richard T. Miyamoto, MD, MS
Content last modified September 2013