Otitis media with effusion is highly prevalent among young children. Adverse effects of this disorder are mainly restricted to the group of children with a history of recurrent or persistent otitis media with effusion. Early identification, assessment and intervention might prevent these adverse effects. Up to now it is not possible to distinguish these children from those with transient otitis media with effusion. This article presents a comprehensive model for the aetiology of otitis media with effusion. Eustachian tube functioning and the immunological response to environmental pathogens are the two core elements. This model can be used to formulate specific hypotheses about the interaction of several factors that may lead to the early identification of children who are likely to develop persistent or recurrent otitis media with effusion.