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Scientists create first smartphone app that can 'hear' ear infections in children

Smartphone app to detect fluid in ears
Fluid buildup behind the eardrum can lead to ear infections in children.  Credit: University of Washington

Scientists have created the first ever app that can “hear” ear infections in children in a breakthrough that could help parents diagnose the painful condition at home.

Researchers at the University of Washington say their app can detect fluid behind the eardrum by simply using a piece of paper and a smartphone’s microphone and speaker.

The smartphone makes a series of soft audible chirps into the ear through a small paper funnel and, depending on the way the chirps are reflected back to the phone, the app determines the likelihood of fluid present with 85pc accuracy.

Ear infections occur when fluid builds up behind the eardrum, leading to an infection of the air space there known as the middle ear.

Fluid buildup can often be painful and difficult to diagnose because of the vague symptoms associated such as fever and headaches. They are more likely to occur in children than adults.

“Depending on how much liquid is in [the ear], you get different sounds. Using machine learning on these sounds, we can detect the presence of liquid,” said Justin Chan, lead author of the report.

The team trained the app to detect fluid in a test trial on 53 children aged between 18 months and 17-years-old at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the US Department of Health, ear infections are the most common issue parents take their children to see a paediatrician. Fluid build up can be especially detrimental to young children learning to talk.

There are plans for a commercial role out of the technology via a company called Edus Health.

“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 Shyam Gollakota, a co-author of the paper.