It’s one of the most common reasons babies are taken to the doctor, but parents may soon be able to self-diagnose ear infections in their kids using a simple smartphone app.
Researchers have created a new app that’s able to detect fluid behind the eardrum – and all you need is a piece of paper and your phone.
Quick, at-home screening for parents
The smartphone app makes a series of soft, audible chirps into the ear, using a small paper funnel place on the outer ear. The app works out the likelihood that there’s fluid in the ear depending on how the chirps reflect back to the phone. The probability of detection is 85 per cent, which researchers say is on par with the methods currently used by specialists to detect fluid in the middle ear (usually done using acoustics or a puff of air).
“Designing an accurate screening tool on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone can be game-changing for parents as well as health care providers in resource-limited regions,” said co-author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the University of Washington. “A key advantage of our technology is that it does not require any additional hardware other than a piece of paper and a software app running on the smartphone.”
Parents are able to quickly screen their bub at home, and decide whether a trip to the doctor is necessary.
How does the app work to diagnose ear infections?
The sounds sent via the app through the paper funnel are measured as they bounce off the eardrum. Depending on whether there is fluid present, the sound waves interfere with the chirping sound waves differently.
“It’s like tapping a wine glass,” explained co-first author Justin Chan. “Depending on how much liquid is in it, you get different sounds. Using machine learning on these sounds, we can detect the presence of liquid.”
The research team has already tested the app on more than 50 children, who were scheduled to undergo surgery to ear tube placement, which is common for those with chronic or recurrent incidents of ear fluid. The children were scheduled to undergo a different surgery unrelated to ears, like tonsillectomies.
“What is really unique about this study is that we used the gold standard for diagnosing ear infections,” said co-first author Dr. Sharat Raju. “When we put in ear tubes, we make an incision into the eardrum and drain any fluid present. That’s the best way to tell if there is fluid behind the eardrum. So these surgeries created the ideal setting for this study.”
The researchers also taught parents how to use the app, and fold the paper funnels, to test how it can be used at home. The parents were able to successfully detect which children had fluid-filled ears. The team is planning on making the app available to the public.
“Fluid behind the eardrum is so common in children that there’s a direct need for an accessible and accurate screening tool that can be used at home or in clinical settings,” Raju said. “If parents could use a piece of hardware they already have to do a quick physical exam that can say ‘Your child most likely doesn’t have ear fluid’ or ‘Your child likely has ear fluid, you should make an appointment with your pediatrician,’ that would be huge.”
What is an ear infection?
Ear infections are really common in babies and kids and happen when fluid builds up in the middle ear behind the eardrum and is infected. Not only is the fluid build-up painful, but it can also impact children’s hearing.
Ear infections can also be tricky to diagnose, particularly in very young babies, because the symptoms can be vague. They include children tugging on their ears and fevers, but sometimes there are no symptoms at all.
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