It may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but we may not be too far away from having a complete health exam using only a Breathalyzer-type tool. The idea of using breath tests as a medical diagnosis dates back to Hippocrates. Around 400 B.C., he wrote a paper on breath aroma and disease. For many years, doctors have noticed how particular breath odors can be associated with a disease. Today, doctors are even taking the idea a step further by actually diagnosing illnesses through your unique "breath print."

Tools called mass spectrometers can detect the tiny chemical compounds in your breath, according to The Wall Street Journal. Scientists are beginning to decipher what these combinations mean and, in turn, are getting a better understanding of what’s going on inside our bodies. “Anything you can have a blood test for, there is potentially a breath test for, as long as there is a volatile component,” said Raed A. Dweik, director of the pulmonary vascular program at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute, to The Wall Street Journal. Here are just a few of the many illnesses that may be revealed through your breath:

1. Lung Cancer

Scientists have already known that some animals are able to sniff out certain diseases. Working off of this idea, researchers have been trying to develop an “electronic nose" technology. This would work by detaching different profiles of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in breath samples, according to the press release from 2013. Although researchers are not able to clearly identify which VOCs are linked to different diseases, the study suggests that it is possible for an electronic nose to differentiate lung cancer from different lung conditions and healthy people. Out of a group of 128 nonsmokers and 114 smokers, the technology only misdiagnosed 10 individuals. “We have shown that it is possible to use breath tests to correctly identify lung cancer with a high sensitivity rate. The results of our study take us one step further to understand this important new technology,” lead author Maris Bukovskis explained in the press release.

2. Heart Failure

One team of scientists was able to detect heart failure through an analysis of patients’ breath. The test was originally used to detect kidney failure using a breath test. The heart patients were merely used as a control. It did not take long for the researchers to realize that the heart patients also had their own unique “breath prints.” Their 2012 study could revolutionize the way that doctors are able to detect heart disease by providing a non-invasive alternative test for diagnosis.

3. Obesity

Another study, conducted by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, found that one’s breath could show how susceptible a person is to develop obesity. Researchers analyzed the breath of 792 participants and found that those with high concentrations of the gases methane and hydrogen had higher BMIs and higher percentages of fat than those whose breath had the normal mix of gases or a high concentration of either methane or hydrogen alone.

4. Diabetes

A fruity breath odor, or one similar to nail polish, can indicate a serious problem in diabetic patients called ketoacidosis. This is a life-threatening problem that occurs when the body cannot use sugar as a fuel source because there is no insulin or not enough insulting. Fat is used for fuel instead. When fat breaks down, waste products called ketones build up in the body.

5. Kidney Failure

Breath that has an ammonia-like odor can sometimes occur in people who suffer from chronic kidney failure. This smell is also described as urine-like or fishy. The kidneys remove wastes from the blood. When the kidneys fail, also known as end-stage renal disease, they are no longer able to remove toxins from the blood. Waste builds up throughout the body, and one of the ways they are released is through the respiratory system in the form of bad breath.


Taivans I, Jurka N, Balode L, et al. Exhaled Air Analysis in Patients with Different Lung Diseases Using Artificial Odour Sensors. Proceedings of the Latvian Academy of Sciences. 2009.

Cikach FS, Dweik RA. Cardiovascular Biomarkers in Exhaled Breath. ScienceDirect. 2012.

Mathur R, Amichai M, Chua KS, Mirocha J, Barlow GM, Pimentel M. Methane and Hydrogen Positivity on Breath Test Is Associated With Greater Body Mass Index and Body Fat. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2013.