In this undated photo, Dr. Randall Bly uses a uses a phone app and a paper funnel to focus the sound, to check his daughter for an ear infection, at the UW School of Medicine in Seattle. (Dennis Wise/University of Washington via AP)

In this undated photo, Dr. Randall Bly uses a uses a phone app and a paper funnel to focus the sound, to check his daughter for an ear infection, at the UW School of Medicine in Seattle. (Dennis Wise/University of Washington via AP)

Using a smartphone to sound out sign of kids’ ear infections

Parents might one day check their tots’ ears simply using a phone app and “paper, tape and scissors.”

By Lauran Neergaard / Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Researchers have created a way for a smartphone to “hear” a warning sign of ear infections — fluid buildup behind the eardrum.

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.

Ear infections are one of the most common reasons for pediatrician visits. 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.

Diagnosis is difficult. 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. But ear specialists tend to use pricier, more complex tests that measure if the eardrum is pliable enough to vibrate correctly in response to sound, or is stiff from the pressure of fluid behind it.

A team of engineers and doctors at the University of Washington developed a simple smartphone approach for acoustic testing: Cut a piece of paper, fold it into a funnel shape and tape it around the phone’s microphone and speakers. Aim the funnel at the ear canal to focus sound. An experimental app beams in birdlike chirps, at a specific frequency. The microphone detects sound waves bouncing off the eardrum.

The app analyzes that echo, a broad-spectrum vibration from a healthy eardrum. Pus or uninfected fluid alters the eardrum’s mobility and changes the reflected sound. The app sends a text saying whether it’s likely that middle-ear fluid is present — one piece of information, along with other symptoms, that might be used for diagnosis.

“This type of technology could potentially avoid needless doctor visits,” said Dr. Justin Golub, a Columbia University ear specialist who wasn’t involved with the research. Golub often sees patients with suspected ear infections who don’t actually have one. He called the tool’s accuracy “quite impressive.”

Researchers tested the system on 98 ears, in children older than 18 months who were about to undergo surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Half were having ear tubes implanted, so doctors could tell exactly how much fluid was present to compare with the smartphone results. The system detected fluid as well or better than specialized acoustic testing devices, the team reported Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

A smaller test showed similar results as young as 9 months. And in a separate experiment involving 25 kids’ ears, parents used the smartphone to check for fluid just as well as doctors did.

“Examining ears is difficult,” and better tools are needed for doctors, too, said Dr. Alejandro Hoberman, pediatrics chief at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, who also wasn’t part of the research.

But just because there’s fluid present doesn’t mean it’s infected — and Hoberman worried that at-home use of such a device “may alarm parents” and pressure doctors to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics.

Dr. Randall Bly, a University of Washington ear specialist and study co-author, says the smartphone approach is a bit like using a thermometer in deciding when to call a doctor. If it finds no sign of fluid, “then you can be pretty confident the fever or whatever is probably not related to an ear infection,” he explained.

But lots of children have persistent ear fluid without infections — and they’re supposed to be tracked for months in deciding if they need ear tubes.

At-home monitoring would be easier and cheaper than repeated doctor visits just for an ear test, added Raju, a surgical resident.

That’s one reason the American Academy of Otolaryngology in 2016 called for development of at-home strategies to detect fluid buildup in the ears.

The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. The university filed for a patent, and the researchers are seeking Food and Drug Administration approval to sell the app.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

MyMyToyStore.com owner Tom Harrison at his brick and mortar storefront on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Near-death experience planted seeds for downtown Everett toy store

Former attorney Tom Harrison survived 9/11. It caused him to ask what’s important in life. Today, he runs MyMyToyStore.

Sean Jones, membership executive of Everett's Freedom Boat Club, helps club member Carolyn Duncan load equipment onto her boat before she and a friend head out crabbing onThursday, Aug. 11, 2022, at the Port of Everett in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New Everett franchise offers boats at Everett Marina

Freedom Boat Club’s newest Washington location is in Everett, with six boats available to its members.

Devin Ryan, left to right, talks with Donald Whitley and Drew Yager before a test ride at Bicycle Centres Wednesday in Everett, Washington on August 24, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
New hands take the handlebars for Bicycle Centres

Longtime employees Devin Ryan, Aron Chaudiere and Ryan Brown bought the business that’s been around since 1976.

A truck drives past a sign displaying fuel prices on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Diesel prices stay high for truckers, farmers

Gas prices have fallen steadily this summer, but diesel costs have started to climb again.

FILE - Test engineer Jacob Wilcox pulls his arm out of a glove box used for processing sodium at TerraPower, a company developing and building small nuclear reactors, Jan. 13, 2022, in Everett, Wash. A major economic bill headed to the president has “game-changing” incentives for the nuclear energy industry, experts say, and those tax credits are even more substantial if a facility is sited in a community where a coal plant is closing. Bill Gates' company, TerraPower, plans to build an advanced, nontraditional nuclear reactor and employ workers from a local coal-fired power plant scheduled to close soon. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Everett nuclear research facility gets $750 million infusion

Bellevue’s TerraPower, which operates an Everett facility, got a hefty investment to fund research.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Business briefs: Leadership Snohomish County names new executive director

Plus a new short-term, career programs at Edmonds College, state grants for small businesses and more.

Tim Leonard, owner of the Machine Shop, is closing the arcade this fall. (Photo by David Welton)
Arcade owner to pull plug on beloved Whidbey Island business

Tim Leonard, owner of the Machine Shop in Langley, recently decided he’ll call it quits this fall.

Jennifer Sadinsky is the owner of Grayhorse Mercantile, one of Langley’s newest stores. (David Welton)
Shopkeeper brings taste of Europe to Whidbey Island

A first-time business owner’s dream of opening a cheese shop became a reality this year.

Rick Winter (left) and Gary Yang, the founders of the former UniEnergy Technologies, stand with one their latest batteries, the Reflex, August 10, 2022. (Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)
‘Chaotic mess’: Clean energy promises imploded at Mukilteo battery maker

UniEnergy Technologies absorbed millions in public funds, then suddenly went dark. The company is accused of providing tech to China.

Eviation's all-electric plane in flight Tuesday morning in Moses Lake, Washington, on Sept. 27, 2022. (Eviation)
Arlington’s all-electric plane, Alice, takes first test flight

Eviation Aircraft’s battery-powered plane logs successful first flight from Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake.

At two stores – in Edmonds and Renton – Wide Shoes Only store owner Dominic Ahn offers more than 600 styles of shoes for people with wide feet. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
These Edmonds and Renton shoe stores could change your life

Wide Shoes Only: Huge selection, expert fitting and superior customer service

Amber Weaver, who has worked at the Lakewood Crossing Starbucks for 5 years, with her daughter Melody, outside of her workplace on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Complaint accuses Starbucks of anti-union threats in Marysville

Meanwhile, a mother of two said Thursday that Starbucks refused to accommodate her schedule when she returned from maternity leave.