By Sharon Salyer
For the Globe
MARYSVILLE – Kelly Estes is a veteran of ear infection “wars.”
Her daughter, Ella, began suffering painful infections when she was 5-months old.
“She had infections every six weeks,” her mom said. The problem was, she didn’t have some of the symptoms — such as fever — that typically signal ear infections.
When asked about symptoms, Estes told doctors of her child’s moodiness and crankiness, that she was not sleeping well and that “she was just not being nice.”
But when taken to a clinic, her daughter was diagnosed with multiple ear infections, Estes said.
A few years later, Kelly and her husband, Josh, began noticing the oh-too-familiar symptoms following the birth of their second daughter, Reese.
“A kid can be happy one day and the next day be a screaming mess,” Estes said.
Her reaction was immediate when told that a University of Washington doctor is developing a smartphone app that sends sound waves into the ear to help detect whether children have ear infections.
“That’s amazing,” she said. “It would have at least given me peace of mind to call the doctor and say I’ve used the app and yes, there’s a potential rather than saying she’s just moody.”
The app can be used on both Android and iPhone smartphones. Dr. Randall Bly, who worked with a three-member team of UW computer scientists to develop the app, said he hopes it can be available to the public in about a year, following review by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
It’s too early to know exactly how much it will cost, but “we’re not going to be happy unless it’s accessible and affordable,” he said.
A small paper cone, which could be made at home, is attached to the phone to direct a sound wave into the ear canal. The app measures the sound waves that bounce off the eardrum. The shape of the acoustic “fingerprint” that’s created indicates if there’s middle ear fluid.
The app was tested on children who were about to undergo getting tubes temporarily implanted in their ears to reduce pressure and future infections. Tests showed the app predicted ear infections 85 percent of the time.
Parents began sending Bly messages asking when the app would be available following the May publication of a study of the app’s effectiveness in a professional journal. He said its need is underscored every day in the young patients he sees. Kids do tend to outgrow ear infection, but it’s often not until they are 8 or older.
Concern that a child may have an ear infection is one of the most common reasons for kids’ visits to a doctor, Bly said.
Parental concern goes beyond their child being in pain. Frequent ear infections caused by fluid that builds up in the ear canal can cause hearing loss, which can lead to speech and language delays, Bly said.
“I can see the frustration on parent’s face,” he said.