Smartphone App Could Help Diagnose Ear Infections in Children

21 May 2019


Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a mobile phone app that can detect possible warning signs of an ear infection in children.

Ear infections, although are quite common amongst children, can be difficult to diagnose due to their vague symptoms and the difficulty young children may have with describing them. Usually, a doctor will look into the ear for inflammation and cameras are also available to parents to do the same. A common sign of infection is a build-up of fluid behind the eardrum.

“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 clinical settings,” said Sharat Raju, a researcher involved in the study. “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 paediatrician’, that would be huge.”

The app is used in conjunction with a paper cone placed inside the child's ear. The cone is simply a piece of paper folded into a funnel shape and taped around the phone's microphone.

Once the cone is in position, the app delivers a sound at a specific frequency that is similar to a bird chirping for approximately 1.2 seconds. The phone's microphone picks up the sound waves from the chirping sound bouncing back from the eardrum. The app is then able to analyse the sound pattern of the echo to determine if there is an accumulation of fluid behind the eardrum or middle ear.

“The way to think about it is almost like a wine glass,” said Shyam Gollakota, head of the lab that developed the project.

“And if you tap on the wine glass, you're going to get a different sound depending on the level of liquid in the wine glass.”

Out of approximately 100 cases, the app had a success rate of 85%. The team hopes to obtain approval for the ear infection app by the end of the year and be available to the market by early 2020.

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