What Your Breath Says About Your Health

Even in this day and age of high-tech tests, doctors can learn crucial information about a patient’s health just by smelling his/her breath.

From Listerine, Tic Tacs, and endless quantities of chewing gum, we tackle bad breath with an arsenal of mouth fresheners whenever it strikes. Because let’s face it, anything less than minty fresh is just not appealing. But, it turns out that your smelly little problem could be a bigger deal than you might think.

As Everyday Health reports on what your breath says about your health.

What Your Breath Says About Your HealthWhen a breath smells fruity, it may indicate the presence of acetone due to uncontrolled diabetes, while a fishy odor may be a red flag for kidney failure.

Recently, a highly sensitive electronic sensors can now diagnose and monitor certain illnesses by testing for chemical compounds in the breath. This breakthrough technology, which is still in its early stages of development, is based on the principle that biochemical changes in the body that are caused by illness produce a characteristic breath signature.

Breath analysis is already being used to diagnose and/or monitor common diseases, including diabetes, stomach ulcers and asthma, and now researchers are developing tests for such conditions as tuberculosis (TB) and lung cancer.

Why is breath analysis considered an advance over the current tests that are used to diagnose diseases? One advantage is that breath analysis is completely noninvasive. You don’t have to tolerate a stick from a needle or even urinate into a cup. You simply breathe into a device. The accuracy of breath analysis is about the same as blood, urine and other types of medical tests,” according to Cristina E. Davis, PhD, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and a leading specialist in chemical and biological sensing technologies.

What Your Breath Says About Your HealthUnlike tests that involve blood or other body fluids, breath testing can be performed and analyzed right in your doctor’s office instead of at a laboratory. You don’t have to wait for days (or weeks) to get lab results. Right now, you can get results from some tests in about 10 minutes. In the future, the information will most likely be available almost instantaneously.
So, how does your breath says about your health?

Every time you exhale, your breath carries thousands of different molecules. Many of these molecules are volatile organic compounds, substances that evaporate and potentially produce odors. These compounds can be detected with highly sensitive electronic sensors.

Some molecules in the breath are present only when you have a particular disease. With breath analysis, we can detect these molecules and also measure their concentrations. This information can be used both to diagnose a disease and to monitor some types of illness over time. Several tests are FDA-approved and sometimes covered by insurance.

What Your Breath Says About Your Health

How is breath analysis being used to monitor disease?

Breath testing is now a key element in the treatment of asthma. Doctors can use levels of nitric oxide, a molecule that can be detected with a breath test, to determine whether medications and/or dosages need to be adjusted. Breath analysis, used with conventional asthma tests, such as spirometry and peak flow—both of which involve blowing into devices to measure airflow—gives a more complete picture of the lung inflammation that causes asthma symptoms.


Breath analysis is one of the most exciting areas of medical research, with many new tests expected to be available in the next several years.

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