Taste Changes in Otitis Media May Lead to Obesity

Jim Kling

March 21, 2011

March 21, 2011 — Chronic otitis media with effusion (COME) causes changes in taste, which may contribute to childhood obesity, according to a study published in the March issue of the Archives of Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery.

Some studies have tied COME to pediatric obesity. Previous research by the authors showed that body mass index and total serum cholesterol concentration were higher in children with COME than in control patients. Other research suggests that children with COME have a higher taste threshold on the affected side of the tongue compared with the unaffected side, and corrective surgery for COME reduced the taste threshold on the affected side. That latter data suggest that the function of the chorda tympani nerve may be reduced as a result of inflammation in the middle ear, causing reduction of taste. These changes may in turn lead to changes in eating patterns.

To investigate changes in body mass index and taste in children undergoing ventilation tube insertion for COME, Il Ho Shin, MD, from the Department of Otorhinolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery, School of Medicine, Kyung Hee University, Seoul, South Korea, and colleagues conducted a prospective, nonrandomized, case–control study of 42 children aged 3 to 7 years with COME who underwent tympanostomy tube insertion compared with a control group of 42 children aged 4 to 7 years without COME. Study enrolment was completed between September 2007 and August 2009. The researchers used electrogustometry to measure taste threshold of 4 standard taste solutions (sucrose, sodium chloride, citric acid, and quinine hydrochloride).

Patients in the COME group had a higher body mass index than in the control group (20.6 kg/m2 [standard deviation [SD], 4.6 kg/m2] vs 17.7 kg/m2 [SD, 3.3 kg/m2]; P = .02). The COME group had a higher taste threshold in the anterior part of the tongue than the control group (anterior right, 14.3 [SD, 6.7] decibel vs 8.0 [SD, 3.7] decibel; P = .03; anterior left, 13.3 [SD, 6.3] decibel vs 8.5 [SD, 3.8] decibel; P = .04).

The COME group also had a lower ability to taste sweet (threshold in COME, 0.22 [SD, 0.12] g/mL vs 0.16 [SD, 0.11] g/mL; P = .02) and salty (threshold in COME, 0.10 [SD, 0.09] g/mL vs 0.06 [SD, 0.06] g/mL; P = .04) flavors.

The fact that the ability of participants with COME to taste sweet and salty flavors tracked with deterioration of thresholds in the anterior of the tongue "suggests that the ability of patients with otitis media to taste sweet and salty foods at the same intensity as experienced by control patients would require ingestion by the former of sweeter and saltier foods, resulting in an excessive intake of calories and liquids, increasing fat deposition and fluid retention and ultimately resulting in obesity," the authors write.

An important limitation of the study was that it was not controlled for some factors, including eating patterns, child care environment, lifestyle, and disease history.

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2011;3:242-246.

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