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Although the symptoms of the acutely ill child are important both in the diagnosis and follow-up of acute otitis media (AOM), data about them are quite limited. We carried out a prospective survey by collecting information on 354 consecutive children visiting a pediatrician, otolaryngologist or general practitioner because of any kind of acute symptoms to compare symptoms of children with acute otitis media with those of children with other acute infectious diseases. The symptoms and signs observed at home were recorded by the parents before the visit and the findings in the physical examination were recorded later by the physician. AOM was diagnosed in 191 patients (54.0%). The most important symptoms increasing the likelihood of AOM significantly were ear-related symptoms, such as earache (relative risk (RR) 5.4; P < 0.001), rubbing of the ear (RR 5.0; P < 0.001) and feeling of blocked ear (RR 4.5; P < 0.05). However, only 67.7% of children younger than 2 years of age with AOM had any ear-related symptoms. The children with tympanostomy tubes had earache (47.8%) and rubbing of the ear (58.8%) of the same magnitude as did children without tubes. Thinitis increased the likelihood of AOM (RR 2.3; P < 0.001) as did excessive crying in children older than 2 years of age (RR 3.0; P < 0.001). Fever, earache or excessive crying was present in 90.1% of patients with AOM but also in 72.4% of patients without AOM. Many symptoms previously thought to tbe related to AOM, such as fever, cough, poor appetite, diarrhea and vomiting, were not more common in children with AOM than in children with other acute illnesses. The duration of any of the symptoms was not markedly different in children with AOM than in children with other acute diagnoses. We conclude that AOM does not cause any specific symptoms that parents could use in their decision to seek medical advice for their child.