Sixty-five middle ear effusions and paired sera from 41 children with chronic otitis media with effusion were assayed for endotoxin and for tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) in order to establish whether a correlation exists between the concentrations of endotoxin and of these cytokines. Endotoxin concentration was determined by means of a chromogenic limulus amebocyte lysate assay, and the cytokine concentration by means of a quantitative enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Forty percent of the effusions had detectable levels of endotoxin, with a mean concentration of 2.9 +/- 7.8 endotoxin units per milligram of total protein. The mean concentration of TNF-alpha was 1.24 +/- 3.1 pg/mg total protein, and that of IL-1 beta was 18.79 pg/mg total protein. A strong, statistically significant correlation exists between the concentrations of endotoxin and TNF-alpha (r = .89) and IL-1 beta (r = .72). The data indicate that endotoxin may contribute to the pathogenesis of chronic otitis media with effusion by stimulating the sustained production of TNF-alpha and IL-1 beta in the middle ear.