Various cytokines are presently known to be associated with the regulation of inflammatory responses. In pediatric otitis media, cytokines that correlate with various degrees of inflammation are present in middle ear effusions as inflammatory mediators. The present study was undertaken to examine the potential role of the early-response cytokines, interleukin-1β and tumor necrosis factor-α, in adult otitis media. Fifty-nine adults with otitis media underwent tympanocentesis, and the effusion specimens were analyzed for the presence of both cytokines by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay methods. Eighty-eight percent of the effusions were serous in nature. Sixty-seven percent of the patients had a known history of head and neck malignancy and radiation to the temporal bone. Twelve percent of the effusions were positive for interleukin-1β expression, compared with 85% of effusions in children with otitis media. Eight percent of the effusions contained tumor necrosis factor-α, compared with 85% of those collected in pediatric otitis media. All of the specimens that contained tumor necrosis factor-α also contained interleukin-1β. In the present study, there was no correlation with head and neck malignancy/radiation or the clinical degree of inflammation with the presence of either cytokine. We conclude that adult otitis media is associated with lower expression of an acute inflammatory response, as judged by the levels of interleukin-1β and tumor necrosis factor-α in the effusions. Additionally, adult otitis probably represents a less severe and more chronic inflammatory state in comparison with pediatric otitis media. Further analysis of inflammatory mediators in adult otitis media is necessary to evaluate the contribution of cytokines in relation to various etiologic factors.