Ear Infections

Ear infections are the most common reason that parents bring their children to a pediatrician, according to the National Institutes of Health. This condition occurs when fluid builds up in the middle ear behind the eardrum and is infected. This buildup is also common in another condition called otitis media with effusion. Any kind of fluid buildup 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 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.

Soft audible chirps

The smartphone makes a series of soft audible chirps into the ear through a small paper funnel; also depending on the way the chirps are reflected back to the phone; so the app determines the likelihood of fluid present with a probability of detection of 85%. This is on par with current methods use by specialists to detect fluid in the middle ear; which involve specialized tools that use acoustics or a puff of air.

Designing an accurate screening tool on something as ubiquitous; so as a smartphone can be game changing for parents as well as health care providers in resource limited regions; said co author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. A key advantage of our technology is that it does not require any additional hardware; so other than a piece of paper and a software app running on the smartphone.

Once diagnose, ear infections can be easily treat with observation or antibiotics; so persistent fluid can be monitor or drain by a doctor to relieve symptoms of pain or hearing loss. A quick screening at home help parents decide whether or not they need to take their child to the doctor.

When there is no fluid behind the eardrum; so the eardrum vibrates and sends a variety of sound waves back. These sound waves mildly interfere with the original chirp; creating a broad, shallow dip in the overall signal. But when the eardrum has fluid behind it, it doesn’t vibrate as well and reflects the original sound waves back. They interfere more strongly with the original chirp and create a narrow, deep dip in the signal.

Fluid behind the eardrum

Among the children getting their ear tubes place, surgery reveal that 24 ears had fluid behind the eardrum, while 24 ears did not. For children schedule for other surgeries, two ears had bulging eardrums characteristic of an ear infection, while the other 48 ears were fine. The algorithm correctly identify the likelihood of fluid 85% of the time, which is comparable to current methods that specialize doctors use to diagnose fluid in the inner ear.

Even though our algorithm was train on older kids, it still works well for this age group,” said co-author Dr. Randall Bly, an assistant professor of otolaryngology head and neck surgery at the UW School of Medicine who practices at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “This is critical because this group has a high incidence of ear infections.”

The team also test the algorithm on a variety of smartphones and use different types of paper to make the funnel. The results were consistent regardless of phone or paper type. The researchers plan on commercializing this technology through a spinout company, Edus Health, and then making the app available to the public.

Fluid behind the eardrum is so common in children that there’s a direct need for an accessible; also accurate screening tool that can be use at home or clinical settings, Raju said. If parents could use a piece of hardware they already have to do a quick physical exam; so 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 pediatrician,’ that would be huge.