Nearly every parent knows what an ear infection false alarm feels like. You see your child acting a bit fussy and tugging on their ear, so you head to the pediatrician's office… and sometimes, you're simply told there's no sign of infection and sent home.
But what if there was a way to weed out those false alarms and save the same-day appointments for the real deal? According to researchers from the University of Washington, there just might be—and the solution may (quite literally) be in the palm of your hand.
Researchers from the UW School of Medicine have come up with software that may tell parents whether or not a child's ear shows signs of infection. The technology can be used at home via a smartphone app. It sounds too good to be true, but the science is telling us otherwise.
Ear infections occur when fluid builds up behind the eardrum and becomes infected, according to the research team. The software works by detecting the presence of any fluid (which, infected or not, can cause pain or hearing difficulties). If your child has fluid in their ear, the software will encourage you to visit your child's doctor—but if there doesn't seem to be any fluid, you may be able to avoid an unnecessary trip.
Here's how it works: Parents use a simple piece of paper to create a funnel of sorts, which is then taped to a smartphone's speaker. You simply hold the funnel up to your child's ear and allow it to play a tone—the app can tell you whether there's any fluid in the ear based on how the sound is reflected back through the funnel.
"It's like tapping a wine glass," says researcher Justin Chan. "Depending on how much liquid is in it, you get different sounds. Using machine learning on these sounds, we can detect the presence of liquid."
The technology's effectiveness seems pretty promising: Researchers created the algorithm based on the study of 53 children, half of whom were undergoing surgery to relieve chronic bouts of ear fluid. The other half of the children were undergoing surgeries unrelated to their ears.
Once they came up with the algorithm, they tested it on 15 children aged 9 to 18 months old and were able to correctly identify fluid in the ears in most of these children. The team also observed a group of parents and doctors using this method, and found that lay parents had similar success in detecting fluid as compared to the group of doctors.
So what does this mean for everyday parents? Well, this smartphone app could be a game-changer. None of us enjoy those unnecessary last-minute trips to the pediatrician's office, after all. With that being said, this research, which was published in Translational Medicine, is new. It may be a while before medical professionals are truly on board with this line of at-home monitoring, but it just may be the first step towards a really convenient technology parents everywhere can employ.
In the meantime, we'd suggest checking in with your child's doctor if you see signs of an ear infection (according to the Mayo Clinic, you should definitely contact the pediatrician if your child is under 6 months old, if symptoms last more than a day, or if you see any discharge from your child's ear). Unnecessary visits are a pain, but you're better off safe than sorry.