Can Doctors Diagnose Ear Infections via Telemedicine?

Ear infections are a common malady, especially among children. And as with many maladies, telehealth can be a huge time-saver to avoid traveling to the doctor’s office. But is telehealth a viable way to diagnose ear infections? As we’ll see, there are ways for the physician to see inside of the inner ear even via telehealth — so you can have your telehealth and get your ears checked too.  

In most cases, ear infections clear up within 3 days. However, there are times when ear infections can be more serious. And sometimes, it can be difficult to decide whether it’s worth it to take the time to go to the doctor’s office to get an ear checked out. What if the ear pain isn’t that serious and going to the doctor isn’t really necessary? But on the other hand, what if it turns into something serious that could require an operation?

First, let’s see how ear infections work to understand the deliberation parents so often have to go through in deciding when it’s time to take their child to the doctor’s office, and then we’ll see how all that apprehension can be avoided with the right telehealth tool. 

 

What is an ear infection?

The medical term for “ear infection” is “otitis media,” an infection of the middle ear. The middle ear is an air-filled space behind the eardrum that houses the ear’s tiny vibrating bones.

Ear infections can be caused by bacteria or viruses. These pathogens typically reach the ear through the eustachian tube, a narrow tube that allows ear mucus to drain into the back of the nose and throat.

When your child has an infection or an allergy, bacteria or viruses travel from the tube into the middle ear. These pathogens can also make the tube swell to the point of becoming blocked, causing fluid build-up.

You can also get ear infections from infected adenoids. These are lymph tissues similar to tonsils found behind the nose. Bacteria can spread from these glands to the ends of the eustachian tubes.

 

Types of ear infection

Doctors classify ear infections into different types:

  • Acute otitis media (middle ear infection): this is the most common type of ear infection, which usually occurs with or after a cold. It tends to appear suddenly and go away after a few days and may cause fever.
  • Otitis media with effusion: this may happen after an acute otitis media. In this case, there is no active infection, and the patient has no symptoms, but the fluid trapped behind the eardrum may cause mild temporary hearing loss.
  • Chronic otitis media with effusion: this condition happens when the fluid stays in the middle ear for a long time or returns repeatedly. This can affect the patient’s hearing and make it harder for them to fight infections.
  • Chronic suppurative otitis media: with this condition, the infection does not go away despite treatment. This can cause a hole to form in the eardrum over time.

 

Symptoms of ear infection

Many ear infections happen to children before they are old enough to clearly explain their symptoms. Five out of six children will get an ear infection before celebrating their third birthday.

Many children with ear infections show nonspecific symptoms. If your child is young, here are a few things to look out for:

  • Tugging or pulling at the ears
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Low-grade fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

 

Ear infections aren’t exclusive to children though — adults can get them too. However, adult ear infections are less common. Common signs and symptoms in adults include:

  • Ear pain
  • Trouble hearing
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Fever

 

Can you do a virtual visit for an ear infection?

Physicians rely on clinical findings and supporting symptoms to diagnose ear infections. This involves an ear exam and looking inside the ear canal using an instrument called an otoscope.

All things considered, this can pose a big barrier to diagnosing ear infections via telemedicine. That is why experts continuously explore novel technology to enable remote otoscopy, which can help doctors to see the inner ear without an in-person visit.

An example of such an innovation is Nonagon’s N9+. You can use the device to capture a video or image of the inner ear in high definition. Just pair the device with your smartphone and send the information to your doctor to get quality care whenever you need, wherever you are.

[Insert image of the N9+ with the sensors labeled according to the physician exams they are used for]

In addition to the N9+’s ability to view the inner ears, the N9+ kit can also collect the following physical exam data to share with the physician:

  • Temperature
  • Heart rate
  • Oxygen saturation
  • A photo of your skin
  • Throat images
  • Recordings of abdominal, heart, and lung sounds

 

The N9+ also lets patients connect with a physician either in real-time or by sending the physician exam data, and any information you want to include, for the physician to review and diagnose.

 

When to see a doctor for an ear infection

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), you should get a physician’s care if your child has:                    

  • High fever (102.2°F or 39°C or higher)
  • Fluid or pus drainage from the ear
  • Worsening symptoms
  • Symptoms lasting for more than 2-3 days
  • Hearing loss

 

How to prevent an ear infection

Preventing ear infections can be challenging, especially those caused by colds and flu. However, according to the CDC, the following can help protect the health of your child, and yourself:

  • Keep your child up-to-date with their vaccinations
  • Prevent exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Breastfeed them exclusively until six months old
  • Keep hands clean
  • Dry ears thoroughly after swimming

 

Regular monitoring is also sometimes recommended, for example, if a child tends to have recurrent infections. In such cases, having an at-home ear otoscope to share the results with the physician can help them detect problems early on to mitigate the problem. And it allows you to do that regularly from the comfort of your home.

 

In summary

Ear infections can be tricky to diagnose via telehealth. But with the help of telemedicine and technology, diagnosis and treatment are becoming increasingly possible even from remote locations.

If you think your child has an ear infection, reach out to a doctor virtually or in person, especially if your child is under three. Doing so will help ensure that your child receives an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment.

It can also be helpful to practice preventive measures, such as staying up-to-date on vaccinations, breastfeeding exclusively until the baby is 6 months old when possible and avoiding secondhand smoke to reduce the risk of ear infections. An at-home ear otoscope, such as Nonagon’s N9+, can also be used to catch ear problems early, avoid trips to the doctor’s office, and help your doctor monitor your child’s ear health more closely.

 

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