Phone app 'hears' child ear infections

Friday, 24 May, 2019

Phone app 'hears' child ear infections

Researchers have created a simple mobile phone app that health practitioners and parents can use to identify if their child has an ear infection. The app, accompanied by a paper cone attached to the smartphone, could be particularly helpful in resource-poor regions.

Ear infections are the most common reason that parents bring their children to a pediatrician, according to the National Institutes of Health in the US.

This condition occurs when fluid builds up in the middle ear behind the eardrum and is infected. This build-up is also common in another condition called otitis media with effusion. Any kind of fluid build-up can be painful and make it hard for children to hear, which can be especially detrimental when they are learning to talk.

Both conditions are hard to diagnose because they have vague symptoms: sometimes children tug on their ears or have fevers, and sometimes there are no symptoms. In addition, young children may not be able to describe where they hurt.

Now researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have created a new smartphone app that can detect fluid behind the eardrum by simply using a piece of paper and a smartphone’s microphone and speaker. The smartphone makes a series of soft audible chirps into the ear through a small paper funnel and, depending on the way the chirps are reflected back to the phone, the app determines the likelihood of fluid present, with a probability of detection of 85%.

This is on par with current methods used by specialists to detect fluid in the middle ear, which involve specialised tools that use acoustics or a puff of air.

The system uses a regular piece of paper cut and folded into a funnel to guide sound waves in and out of the ear canal. Image ©Dennis Wise/University of Washington.

“Designing an accurate screening tool on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone can be game changing for parents as well as healthcare providers in resource-limited regions,” said study co-author UW Associate Professor Shyam Gollakota. “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.”

Once diagnosed, ear infections can be easily treated with observation or antibiotics, and persistent fluid can be monitored or drained by a doctor to relieve symptoms of pain or hearing loss. A quick screening at home could help parents decide whether or not they need to take their child to the doctor.

Top image: Dr Randall Bly, an assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the UW School of Medicine who practises at Seattle Children’s Hospital, uses the app to check his daughter’s ear. Image ©Dennis Wise/University of Washington.

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