Retention of inflammatory mediators and cells in the middle ear cleft during chronic otitis media with effusion (COME), results in ongoing inflammation with the potential for pathologic changes and hearing loss. Cytokines are glycoproteins produced by macrophages and other cells. Activities of cytokines include fever production, osteoclast, fibroblast, phagocyte and cytotoxic cell activation, regulation of antibody formation, and inhibition of cartilage, bone and endothelial cell growth. Using enzyme-linked immunospecific assays we measured levels of six cytokines in middle ear effusions (MEE) from children with COME. Significant levels of four cytokines: interleukin-1-beta (greater than 50 pg/ml), interleukin-2 (greater than 300 pg/ml), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (greater than 40 pg/ml), and gamma-interferon (greater than 6.25 pg/ml) were found in 51%, 54%, 63%, and 19% of MEE, respectively. In contrast, levels of a fifth cytokine, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor, and a sixth cytokine, interleukin-4, were undetectable. Age was observed to have a significant effect on the levels of specific cytokines. Interleukin-1 (IL-1) correlated inversely (P less than .02) with age such that the younger the child, the higher the level of IL-1 in MEE. Tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF) correlated directly (P less than .005) with age such that the older the child, the higher the level of TNF in MEE. Children undergoing tympanostomy on multiple occasions had average MEE TNF levels (234.2 +/- 109.1 pg/mg total protein) that were nearly 14 times higher (P less than .005) than those from children undergoing their first tympanostomy (16.9 +/- 3.0 pg/mg total protein). Thus IL-1 correlated with the early stages of COME, while TNF correlated with persistence of disease. The presence of these cytokines in MEE may be responsible for the mucosal damage, bone erosion, fibrosis, and resulting hearing loss seen in some cases of COME.