Topical and oral steroids for otitis media with effusion (OME) in children

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2023 Dec 13;12(12):CD015255. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD015255.pub2.


Background: Otitis media with effusion (OME) is an accumulation of fluid in the middle ear cavity, common amongst young children. The fluid may cause hearing loss. Although most episodes of OME in children resolve spontaneously within a few months, when persistent it may lead to behavioural problems and a delay in expressive language skills. Management of OME includes watchful waiting, medical, surgical and other treatments, such as autoinflation. Oral or topical steroids are sometimes used to reduce inflammation in the middle ear.

Objectives: To assess the effects (benefits and harms) of topical and oral steroids for OME in children.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane ENT Register, CENTRAL, Ovid MEDLINE, Ovid Embase, Web of Science,, ICTRP and additional sources for published and unpublished studies on 20 January 2023.

Selection criteria: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-randomised trials in children aged 6 months to 12 years with unilateral or bilateral OME. We included studies that compared topical or oral steroids with either placebo or watchful waiting (no treatment).

Data collection and analysis: We used standard Cochrane methods. Our primary outcomes, determined by a multi-stakeholder prioritisation exercise, were: 1) hearing, 2) OME-specific quality of life and 3) systemic corticosteroid side effects. Secondary outcomes were: 1) presence/persistence of OME, 2) other adverse effects (including local nasal effects), 3) receptive language skills, 4) speech development, 5) cognitive development, 6) psychosocial outcomes, 7) listening skills, 8) generic health-related quality of life, 9) parental stress, 10) vestibular function and 11) episodes of acute otitis media. We used GRADE to assess the certainty of evidence. Although we included all measures of hearing assessment, the proportion of children who returned to normal hearing was our preferred method to assess hearing, due to challenges in interpreting the results of mean hearing thresholds.

Main results: We included 26 studies in this review (2770 children). Most studies of oral steroids used prednisolone for 7 to 14 days. Studies of topical (nasal) steroids used various preparations (beclomethasone, fluticasone and mometasone) for between two weeks and three months. All studies had at least some concerns regarding risk of bias. Here we report our primary outcomes and main secondary outcome, at the longest reported follow-up. Oral steroids compared to placebo Oral steroids probably result in little or no difference in the proportion of children with normal hearing after 12 months (69.7% of children with steroids, compared to 61.1% of children receiving placebo, risk ratio (RR) 1.14, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.97 to 1.33; 1 study, 332 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). There is probably little or no difference in OME-related quality of life (mean difference (MD) in OM8-30 score 0.07, 95% CI -0.2 to 0.34; 1 study, 304 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). Oral steroids may reduce the number of children with persistent OME at 6 to 12 months, but the size of the effect was uncertain (absolute risk reduction ranging from 13.3% to 45%, number needed to treat (NNT) of between 3 and 8; low-certainty evidence). The evidence was very uncertain regarding the risk of systemic corticosteroid side effects, and we were unable to conduct any meta-analysis for this outcome. Oral steroids compared to no treatment Oral steroids may result in little or no difference in the persistence of OME after three to nine months (74.5% children receiving steroids versus 73% of those receiving placebo; RR 1.02, 95% CI 0.89 to 1.17; 2 studies, 258 participants; low-certainty evidence). The evidence on adverse effects was very uncertain. We did not identify any evidence on hearing or disease-related quality of life. Topical (intranasal) steroids compared to placebo We did not identify data on the proportion of children who returned to normal hearing. However, the mean change in hearing threshold after two months was -0.3 dB lower (95% CI -6.05 to 5.45; 1 study, 78 participants; very low-certainty evidence). The evidence suggests that nasal steroids make little or no difference to disease-specific quality of life after nine months (OM8-30 score, MD 0.05 higher, 95% CI -0.36 to 0.46; 1 study, 82 participants; low-certainty evidence). The evidence is very uncertain regarding the effect of nasal steroids on persistence of OME at up to one year. Two studies reported this: one showed a potential benefit for nasal steroids, the other showed a benefit with placebo (2 studies, 206 participants). The evidence was also very uncertain regarding the risk of corticosteroid-related side effects, as we were unable to provide a pooled effect estimate. Topical (intranasal) steroids compared to no treatment We did not identify data on the proportion of children who returned to normal hearing. However, the mean difference in final hearing threshold after four weeks was 1.95 dB lower (95% CI -3.85 to -0.05; 1 study, 168 participants; low-certainty evidence). Nasal steroids may reduce the persistence of OME after eight weeks, but the evidence was very uncertain (58.5% of children receiving steroids, compared to 81.3% of children without treatment, RR 0.72, 95% CI 0.57 to 0.91; 2 studies, 134 participants). We did not identify any evidence on disease-related quality of life or adverse effects.

Authors' conclusions: Overall, oral steroids may have little effect in the treatment of OME, with little improvement in the number of children with normal hearing and no effect on quality of life. There may be a reduction in the proportion of children with persistent disease after 12 months. However, this benefit may be small and must be weighed against the potential for adverse effects associated with oral steroid use. The evidence for nasal steroids was all low- or very low-certainty. It is therefore less clear if nasal steroids have any impact on hearing, quality of life or persistence of OME. Evidence on adverse effects was very limited. OME is likely to resolve spontaneously for most children. The potential benefit of treatment may therefore be small and should be balanced with the risk of adverse effects. Future studies should aim to determine which children are most likely to benefit from treatment, rather than offering interventions to all children.

Trial registration: NCT03590912 NCT02541760 NCT00279916.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intranasal
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents* / therapeutic use
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Otitis Media with Effusion* / drug therapy
  • Steroids / adverse effects


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Steroids

Associated data