'Chirping' app knows if a child has an ear infection

Laverne Higgins
May 18, 2019

Now, researchers have created a smartphone app that can detect fluid behind the eardrum by sending a series of chirps through a small paper funnel into the ear.

Dr. Randall Bly, one of the University of Washington researchers, uses the app on his daughter's ear.

In this technique, the smartphone sends soft audible signals into the ear through the paper funnel, which are reflected to the phone's microphone.

But though most infections or cases of OME go away on their own, too much or chronic fluid can cause pain or even severe complications like hearing loss.

"It's a little bit like tapping a wine glass", co-lead author Justin Chan, a doctoral student at the University of Washington's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, told Gizmodo by phone.

"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", says Gollakota.

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When there is no fluid behind the eardrum, the eardrum vibrates and sends a variety of sound waves back.

A system using the speaker and microphone of a smartphone and a handmade paper funnel could be a more effective tool for diagnosing ear infections than a traditional otoscope, according to a study published this week in Science Translational Medicine.

The researchers tested the system using an iPhone 5S and a Galaxy S6 on the ears of 98 patients between the ages of 18 months and 17 years. This percentage is comparable to those of diagnostic procedures used by specialists to detect fluid buildup in the middle ear, with common methods including acoustics or puffing air into the ear. 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.

Though an ear infection can hurt and make it hard to hear, sometimes there are no symptoms and diagnosis can be difficult. The new system, which was validated in 98 patient ears in a pediatric surgical center, could provide a low-priced and effective tool for parents to detect ear infections such as acute otitis media (AOM), a leading cause of visits to pediatric health providers. Besides, the algorithm that analyzes the audio was trained on older kids but found to also work accurately on younger kids. "So these surgeries created the ideal setting for this study". The other half were scheduled to undergo surgery unrelated to the ears. This time, the app correctly identified all 5 children who had ear fluid, while correctly guessing nine of the 10 children who didn't have fluid.

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 goal, researchers said.

The team wanted to give parents a quick and reliable way of screening for the condition at home, to help them decide whether or not to take their child to the doctor.

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