New Smartphone App Can Detect Ear Infections In Children

Undiagnosable ear infections worry parents of young children who are often in the dark on how to find a quick solution to ease the pain of their little ones. Fever, unexplainable pain and the frequent urge to touch the ears more than usual are sometimes the only indications of ear infections, making it difficult for parents to know that their kids are already suffering from an ear infection.

Interestingly, researchers from the University of Washington have built a mobile application to help parents who might not be aware that the symptoms could indicate an ear infection. With this app, parents can quickly act and decide if their child needs to be examined by a doctor, or can just be treated at home. 

Results of the experiment on the app conducted by academicians at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering in U.W. was published in Science Translational Medicine on May 15.  

Ear infections are caused by fluids accumulating right in the middle of the ear, just behind the eardrums. When fluids accumulate in the ear, it prevents children from hearing clearly and could possibly affect the development of speaking abilities in toddlers. These ear infections are of two kinds: acute otitis media and otitis media with effusion.

Ear fluid App Researchers at University of Washington developed a smartphone to help parents detect ear infections at home before children can be taken to the pediatrician. Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Equipment to detect mobility of the eardrums is commonly used to diagnose infection by medical practitioners since limited eardrum movements indicate ear infection. According to the researchers, the app-based screening tool is actually more accurate than the conventional medical equipment.

In the experiment they conducted, they only needed a piece of paper, a microphone and speaker operations of a phone to detect ear infections. The probability of detection was at 85 percent, and this is almost as good as doctors using tools with acoustics or puff of air for diagnosing infection in the middle ear.

To use the app-based screening tool, a paper funnel is first placed against the ear. This reflects back soundwaves coming from a chirping noise generated from the smartphone in a particular way that is used to identify a potential ear infection. The reflecting sound waves emit an interference along with the original chirping noise if there is no fluid in the middle ear. But if there is fluid buildup, the original noise comes back without vibration.  

The team tried their method of detection on 53 children aged 18 months to 17 years at Seattle Children’s hospital. Half of the children were going in for a surgery for ear tube placement, a surgery conducted on patients with intense ear infections and the other half were there for surgeries unrelated to ear infections.

''Among the children getting their ear tubes placed, surgery revealed that 24 ears had fluid behind the eardrum, while 24 ears did not. For children scheduled for other surgeries, two ears had bulging eardrums characteristic of an ear infection, while the other 48 ears were fine," the researchers said in a press release.

The algorithm was 90 percent successful in detecting ear fluids in children aged 9 months to 18 months. The researchers hope to make the app available ubiquitously in the commercial market soon.