How an Ear Inflammation Leads to Obesity

A particular form of inflammation of the inner part of the ear where there is accumulation of fluid behind the ear drum is known as chronic otitis media with effusion. Some studies have shown that this condition is associated with abnormalities of perception of taste. This study for the first time examined the association of this disease with obesity and abnormality of taste function. “These results showed that chronic otitis media with effusion can cause changes in taste and that these changes may be related to pediatric obesity.”

Chronic otitis media with effusion very often affects children and is a common cause for deafness in children. The incidence of this disease is on a rise in the past couple of decades. This disease is generally caused by bacterial infection, but allergy, smoke, non-hygienic lifestyle, cleft lip, etc. have also been implicated in the causation of this disease. Some studies have shown that there is an increased taste threshold in this disease. Taste threshold is the minimum concentration of tastant (any chemical that stimulates the sensory cells in a taste bud) at which a person can perceive the taste of the tastant. Taste threshold can be measured by actual application of increasing concentration of the tasting substance to the tongue or by a technique known as electrogustometry. In electrogustometry, taste receptors in the tongue are directly stimulated by electric probes. In this study, researchers also examined the association of obesity with chronic otitis media with effusion.


  • This study included 42 children affected with chronic otitis media with effusion and also 42 children without this disease. All these children were aged between 3 and 7 years. This study was conducted from September 2007 to August 2009.
  • Obesity levels of all the participants were assessed by measuring their body mass index.
  • Using electrogustometer, the taste threshold was measured in the front, back and both sides of tongue. The voltage at which the child tasted a metallic taste was noted.
  • In this experiment, taste tests were also done by using increasing concentrations of various tastants. Sucrose was used for sweet taste, sodium chloride was used for salty taste, citric acid was used for sour taste, and quinine was used for bitter taste. All of them were applied to different parts of the tongue and the minimum dilution at which the taste was perceived by the child was noted.


  • Body mass index, which is a measure of obesity, was high in chronic otitis media with effusion group compared to children of the control group.
  • In electrogustometry, it was “found that the taste mean thresholds on the anterior right sides of the tongue were significantly higher in the chronic otitis media with effusion group than in the control group.” These findings were more pronounced on the frontal right and left portions of the tongue.
  • Taste tests showed that the mean threshold for sweet and salty tastes was markedly higher in chronic otitis media with effusion group. Not much difference was observed between the groups for other tastes.

Shortcomings/Next steps
This study has identified an association between chronic otitis media with effusion, obesity and taste perception. However, this association may be just a coincidence. To prove the results of this study, one needs to study the environment, eating habits and lifestyle of the children. Children often have low attention span. Hence, they may not respond properly to the experiment being done. So, similar additional studies are required to be conducted on adults to confirm the findings of this study.

The chorda tympani nerve, which passes near the inner part of ear, carries the signals of taste from the tongue to the brain. According to researchers, this nerve may be partially damaged in chronic otitis media with effusion, which decreases the ability of a diseased person to perceive taste. But it is not clear how this nerve, which is outside the ear, is affected by a disease process inside the ear. However, some autopsy studies have shown that in chronic otitis media with effusion, the damage is in the form of fibrosis and inflammation of chorda tympani nerve. This study has identified the association between the chronic otitis media with effusion and obesity. Obesity is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension. Early treatment of chronic otitis media with effusion with surgery may help in preventing the occurrence of these diseases in children at a later stage.

For More Information:
Changes in Taste Function Related to Obesity and Chronic Otitis Media with Effusion
Publication Journal: Archives of Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery, March 2011
By Il Ho Shin, MD; Dong Choon Park, MD
From the Kyung Hee University, Seoul, South Korea

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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