Smartphone 'hears' kids' ear infections

Smartphone 'hears' kids' ear infections

The chirps are reflected back to the phone differently depending on whether fluid is present or not. 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.

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.

"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. The eardrum, formally known as the tympanic membrane, is the barrier between the outer and middle ear.

Middle ear infections result in fluid build-up in the space behind the eardrum; these infections are often painful and may result in fussy children who pull at their ears and complain of general discomfort.

Lastly, in another experiment, Chan's team had parents try to use the app on 25 ears, following a brief tutorial.

"It's like tapping a wine glass", Justin Chan, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, said. "Depending on how much liquid is in it, you get different sounds".

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

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The funnel used can be made from any piece of paper that either the physician or consumer can cut and fold to form the tool.

Researchers said the app works on kids of all ages and that they were able to train parents involved in the study to use the app at home.

One researcher offered a useful analogy - and one that frustrated parents might relate to. Prior to their operation, each patient's ear was analyzed using the smartphone system.

"The definitive way to know if there is fluid is to make an incision in the eardrum", Gollakota explained. The other half were scheduled to undergo surgery unrelated to the ears. It has vague symptoms, from tug of the ears to fever, or there could be no observable symptoms at all. Ears full of fluid reflect the sound differently than healthy ears do, so the researchers trained a machine learning algorithm to detect the difference. The system correctly identified all five ears that did have fluid and nine of the 10 ears that did not have fluid.

There are already very accurate tests (around 80 to 90 per cent) that can diagnose ear fluid by looking for subtle changes in the eardrum, such as tympanometry, but these need to be done at a doctor's office and require specialised medical equipment.

"A quick screening at home could help parents decide whether or not they need to take their child to the doctor", researchers said.

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