Otitis media with effusion (OME) is a chronic inflammation persisting in the middle ear cavity of at least 8 weeks duration. Middle ear effusion (MEE; n = 38), samples from children suffering from OME were investigated for their direct cytolytic activity or an ability to enhance complement lysis of unsensitized bystander cells. Thirteen of the 38 MEEs had direct endogenous haemolytic activity and 27 samples had an ability to enhance serum-initiated lysis. Using an enzyme immunoassay, high levels of terminal complement complexes (TCC) were detected in the MEE samples (mean 34.1 microg/ml, range 5--89 microg/ml). This indicated strong local complement activation that had progressed to the terminal stage. As one potential factor promoting complement activation we identified both monomeric and trimeric properdin in MEE by Western blotting. By stabilizing C3 and C5 convertases properdin accelerates the alternative and terminal pathways of complement. On the other hand, the membrane attack complex (MAC) inhibitor CD59, which was found to be extensively shed into the MEE in a functionally active form, may control excessive cytotoxicity of the MEE. In conclusion, intense complement activation, up to the terminal level, maintains ongoing inflammation in the middle ear cavity and can pose a threat to the local epithelium.