When your child is sick and too small to tell you what’s exactly going on inside their tiny bodies, their diagnosis can become a guessing game. That’s why researchers have developed an app designed to help parents determine whether their child has an ear infection.
Justin Chan, a graduate student at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, along with some colleagues, came up with the idea. The app focuses on sound to detect ear fluid, which can signal an ear infection.
How does it work?
The tip of a small paper funnel is placed inside the child’s ear canal. The app then sends short sounds into the ear. The funnel picks up the echo for the app to analyze. If there’s fluid behind the eardrum, the echo will sound different compared to that of a healthy ear. This could lead the app to make an ear infection diagnosis instantly, but there are more pieces to the puzzle.
“In a true ear infection, the fluid will be thickened, whitish in color and the eardrum will be bulging,” Megan Gaffey, MD, Pediatric Otolaryngologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City tells Parentology.
That’s why when doctors look for an ear infection they use an otoscope to view the eardrum. This lights up the ear canal and magnifies the eardrum so it can be checked for irritation or bulging.
“There are variations and degrees of infection, but when infected the normal landmarks of the eardrum are masked,” Jillian Parekh, MD, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York, tells Parentology. “If the fluid remains in the eardrum for a prolonged time it can become infected with bacteria and this is when we tend to treat with antibiotics.”
Often infants and toddlers who can’t tell you their ears hurt, will be fussy, have trouble sleeping and won’t have a big appetite, says Gaffey. Older children may tug at the ear a lot, complain about ear pain and have a fever.
Can an App Truly Diagnose an Ear Infection?
Researchers did a study involving about 50 children and reported results from the app as being 85 percent accurate. “If the app identifies fluid, I think a visit to the pediatrician is still necessary for further evaluation,” says Parekh.
Gaffey echoes that feeling, telling Parentology that while an app can be a helpful tool, she wouldn’t want parents to rely on it 100%. It can help to confirm a suspicion, but a final call should still be made by a doctor.
The app is still under study and needs FDA approval.
Dr. Megan Gaffey, Pediatric Otolaryngologist, NYU Langone Health
Dr. Jillian Parekh, Division of Academic General Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore