Scientists sift the chemical potpourri that escapes our lungs for new ways to diagnose disease
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The 800 or so breaths you release each hour contain more than just spent air. Along with familiar gases like carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen, each breath holds a vaporized record of the foods you’ve eaten, the places you’ve been, the drugs you’ve taken, the pollutants you’ve encountered and the general operation of your internal organs. It’s a chronicle of daily living that doctors have been largely unable to read.
But a handful of researchers are getting better at deciphering these gaseous clues, bringing us closer to the day when a kind of disease breathalyzer could be part of a routine checkup or maybe even a cell phone app.
The idea of medical diagnosis through exhaled odor is as old as the practice of medicine itself. Hippocrates wrote a treatise on “fetor hepaticus,” or the fishy aroma of liver failure, and noted the sour-scented breath of those with failing kidneys. Only recently, however, has the mainstream medical