Recent studies using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) have identified bacterial and viral genomic sequences in culture-negative pediatric middle ear effusions. To evaluate this technique in adults, 19 effusions were analyzed to compare bacterial and viral culture and PCR detection of Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, Moraxella catarrhalis, and adenovirus. Effusions from 4 subjects positive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) were analyzed by PCR for HIV virus. Three of 19 effusions were culture-positive for bacteria, and 0 of 19 for viruses. Fifteen of 19 effusions were PCR-positive for bacterial genomic sequences, and 0 of 19 for adenovirus. Thirteen of 15 PCR-positive specimens demonstrated S pneumoniae, 5 of 15 H influenzae, and 0 of 13 M catarrhalis. All 4 effusions from HIV-positive subjects were PCR-positive for HIV. No effusion was culture-positive and PCR-negative. These results confirm that culture-negative middle ear effusions contain genomic sequences from bacterial pathogens. Finding of HIV RNA and DNA in effusion from HIV-positives suggests replicating virus in this fluid.