Breath Tests

5 New Breath Tests That Could Save Your Life
Senior Woman With Adult Daughter In Garden Together

Imagine that a simple puff of air from your lungs could tell doctors whether you have asthma, or tuberculosis, or lung cancer -- or other serious health problems. That reality is closer than you think. Breath tests for these life-threatening illnesses and more are available today, or will be soon, thanks to fast-moving research into high-tech sensors and how diseases affect the chemistry of breath. Here are five of the most intriguing tests:

1. Breath test for asthma

An asthma attack can come on suddenly, closing off airways and sending you to the emergency room, or worse, which is why those with asthma have to keep close tabs on inflammation in their lungs and bronchial tubes. Just in the past few years, though, cutting-edge breath-testing machines have arrived in hospitals and clinics. These devices can tell doctors whether you have asthma -- or whether, as an asthma patient, your meds are working -- with a simple exhale. And on the horizon: a pocket-size handheld breath tester, announced by Siemens, that will allow people with asthma and allergies to measure their risk of asthma attack on the go.

What the test does: Measures nitric oxide in breath. "Nitric oxide is produced by inflammatory cells in the airways called eosinophils," says allergist David Bernstein, M.D., of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. "When nitric oxide levels rise above 40 or 50 parts per billion, it's a specific reflection of inflammation in the lungs; there's really nothing else that could cause this."

Why it's important: Prior to the introduction of breath tests several years ago, people with asthma or at risk for asthma had to rely mostly on a sputum test, which requires lab analysis -- a process that can take days. That's not much help when you can't breathe and don't know why, or you already know you have asthma but not whether an asthma attack might be imminent. Breath tests provide results on the spot and offer a potentially life-saving warning that an asthma attack is imminent. "These tests give you a biomarker for what's going on in the lungs," Bernstein says, "so it's almost a way to peek directly into the lungs."

What else you can do: The gold standard of care for people with asthma who can't get to a clinic or hospital today is to monitor lung function with a peak-flow meter, to control symptoms with long-term medication, and to have an action plan in place for asthma attacks, which usually includes taking higher doses of inhaled and oral steroids.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

over 2 years ago, said...

I believe that you that Cancer can be smelled on the may at first register as simply "bad-breath"...however having been with several relatives who were diagnosed with bone cancer--Multiple Myeloma(sister) and Pancreatic cancer (husband)...there was an odor that was distinct. I wondered if that odor could be part of diagnosing?

over 2 years ago, said...

Will this test also be good for people with C.O.P.D. I was diagnosed in 2004 and doing pretty good. I use Advair and Spriva. Is there anything better?

almost 6 years ago, said...

Wonderful discovery

about 6 years ago, said...

The more information I get concerning health, the better I can care for myself. Even at 72, I am my 'primary care provider', the first line of defense in my own health. If I don't care enough to work towards healthy living and eating, why should my Medicare doctor or my VA doctor care? The better I can understand my body and its requirements, the easier time my family and friends will have in not having to care for me. That day may well come, but I can hold it at bay longer the more knowledge about health I have.

about 6 years ago, said...

It was enlightening and encouraging.

about 6 years ago, said...

This is remarkable and very impressive its successfulness, in its timeliness, it is non-invasive, simple to do, reasonable and an encouraging read that offers real hope for so many seriously ill patients....and will keep many others from becoming so ill. I enjoyed the format and clear descriptions and terminology. It is well presented...Thank you so much! I'm an RN, breast cancer survivor, and 30+ year participant in the Harvard Nurses Health Study. Congratulations!

about 6 years ago, said...

It's good to know that non-invasive diagnostic procedures are available or in the pipelines for the future. Prevention and early intervention are essential to our good health!

about 6 years ago, said...

The knowledge that such a test IS available. I have not heard of it before and will discussit with my Doctor at the first opportunity. Thanks