Objective: To determine whether acute otitis media can be distinguished from an uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection by the symptoms of the children.
Design: Prospective cohort study.
Setting: Urban, pediatric primary care center in Turku, Finland.
Patients: Three hundred two children younger than 4 years (mean age, 2.1 years) attending day-care centers were followed up and examined during episodes of upper respiratory tract infection. The signs and symptoms of the children were recorded daily by the parents.
Main results: The specificity and positive predictive value of earache for acute otitis media were 92% and 83%, respectively. However, 40% of the children with acute otitis media had no apparent earache. Restless sleeping had a specificity of 51% and a positive predictive value of 46% for acute otitis media. Thirty-one percent of the children with acute otitis media had no fever. Continuation of respiratory symptoms for several days after the first examination was significantly related with later development of acute otitis media.
Conclusions: Earache in children with upper respiratory tract infection is indicative of acute otitis media, but the absence of earache does not preclude acute otitis media. Therefore, even in the absence of any signs and symptoms localized to the ear, all children at risk for acute otitis media should be examined during upper respiratory tract infection, and if respiratory symptoms persist for several days after the initial visit, a reexamination should be performed. Restless sleeping and fever are of no value in distinguishing acute otitis media from an uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection.