Diabetes is a serious disease, affecting an estimated 29.1 million Americans, of whom eight million are undiagnosed. Among that undiagnosed population is a number of kids with type 1 diabetes, who have yet to experience symptoms of low insulin. Of course, trying to prevent this from happening is what many doctors strive to do. Now, a new study finds that diagnosing children with type 1 diabetes could be as easy as a simple breath test.

The breath test, researchers from Oxford University found, can detect acetone, a sweet-smelling chemical, in the breath of kids with type 1 diabetes. The chemical is a byproduct of processes that lead to a condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). The potentially life-threatening condition causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, confusion, and sometimes death, if it’s not treated promptly. It develops when insulin drops to dangerous levels, preventing cells from getting the glucose they need. This forces the body to burn fat for energy, but in doing so, it produces ketones, or acids, that build up in the blood stream.

Nearly one in four kids are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes after experiencing DKA, making a quick test to detect it all the more important. “We are working on the development of a small handheld device that would allow the possibility to breath measurements for ketone levels and help to identify children with new diabetes before DKA supervenes,” said co-author Gus Hancock, a professor at the university, in a press release. “Currently, testing for diabetes requires a blood test, which can be traumatic for children.”

For the study, the researchers captured the breath of 113 children and adolescents aged 7 to 18 in sample bags. Then, on the same day, they compared breath acetone levels to glucose and ketone levels in the patients’ capillaries, and found that “it is realistically possible to use measurements of breath acetone to estimate blood ketones.”

Over 18,400 kids under 18 are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes each year, and it’s important they don’t happen after an instance of DKA. If the Oxford researchers are able to develop the device, they’ll be able to add one more test to the diagnostic resources currently available, which include blood and urine tests. What’s more, the test would be the easiest to use, as all it would involve is a single puff into the device.

Source: Hancock G, Blaiklie T, Lunn D, et al. Comparison of breath gases, including acetone, with blood glucose and blood ketones in children and adolescents with type 1 diabetes. Journal of Breath Research. 2014.