If someone is wheezing, it usually means that they have a respiratory problem. Soon, however, a wheeze-analyzing wearable device may allow doctors to know what sort of respiratory problem a patient has – and how serious it is.

The system is being developed by Saba Emrani and Hamid Krim, researchers with the National Science Foundation Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST) at North Carolina State University. It consists of two main components.

First, there are body heat-powered sensors that are worn continuously by the patient, as they go about their daily routine. The second part of the system is software that monitors those sensors. When it detects wheezing sounds through them, it uses a custom algorithm to assess those sounds’ onset time, pitch and volume.

By analyzing those parameters, it’s possible to determine the problem’s location within the lungs, along with its severity. Using that information, doctors can then make more informed decisions regarding treatment. According to Krim, the system is accurate regardless of the size of the patient.

In the short run, plans call for the software to be integrated into an app on the user’s smartphone, with which the sensors will communicate wirelessly. When a problem is detected, both the doctor and patient will be notified, and a record of the event will be stored. Down the road, however, it is hoped that a single device could house both the sensing electronics and the software. The phone would still be involved, but only to provide alerts.

A paper on the research is about to be presented at the 2015 European Signal Processing Conference in Nice, France.