Smartphone used to sound out sign of kids' ear infections

Modesto Morganelli
Mag 18, 2019

A smartphone app capable of recognising when a child has an ear infection has been developed by scientists.

The smartphone approach detects if the eardrum vibrates normally in response to sound, or is stiff from fluid behind it. University of Washington researchers developed an experimental app that beams in sound and analyzes how it bounces off the eardrum.

The app prompts the smartphone to emit a series of soft, audible chirps that are directed into the ear through a small paper funnel. Even if there's no infection, fluid that builds up in the middle ear still can be painful and sometimes can muffle hearing enough to affect speech development.

"Using machine learning on these sounds, we can detect the presence of liquid", says first author Justin Chan. "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".

"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 study co-author Shyam Gollakota, a professor in the university's engineering and computer science school.

If it pans out, parents might one day check their tots' ears at home simply using a phone app and "stuff you have around the house - paper, tape and scissors", said one of the lead researchers, Dr. Sharat Raju of the University of Washington.

Chan and his team first tested out the concept with children between the ages of 18 months and 17 years who had been admitted to Seattle Children's Hospital, and used them to refine the app's predictive algorithm. Really, the only way you can know, with complete certainty, is to undergo a surgical operation where they make an incision into the eardrum, where it can drain the fluid.

Diagnosis is hard. Usually a pediatrician will peek into the child's ear to see if the eardrum is inflamed, and parents can buy devices that use cameras to do the same thing.

Wondering if your kid is dealing with an ear infection? The 150-millisecond audio clip resembles a bird chirping and was found to be effective in the researcher's work. Half were having ear tubes implanted, so doctors could tell exactly how much fluid was present to compare with the smartphone results. "So these surgeries created the ideal setting for this study".

"A quick screening at home could help parents decide whether or not they need to take their child to the doctor", researchers said. All five ears that contained fluid were detected, and 9 of the 10 healthy ears were correctly identified.

The app correctly identified the likelihood of fluid 85% of the time - similar to specialized tools that use acoustics or a puff of air for the objective, researchers said.

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