Do you have bad breath? It may not be because you ate too much garlic, it may be because you’re SICK. It’s one of the main indicators of gum disease, but bad breath has a more serious side too.

If your breath smells like nitric oxide, you could have asthma. If it smells like carbon, you could have stomach ulcers. Doctors can recognize telltale patterns in the way your breath smells that will make them investigate whether or not you have lung cancer.

Acetone breath indicate diabetes from ketosis (which means you’re not absorbing enough glucose). Ammonia breath could indicate kidney disease. People with liver disease have breath with high levels of carbon dioxide.

Too much bacteria in your intestines (which can lead to irritable bowel syndrom, or IBS) produces breath with elevated hydrogen levels (you’ll need a chemist to measure these last two).

Certain chemicals in your breath can also indicate that your heart transplant is being rejected.

In the October 9th edition of the Wall Street Journal, Melinda Beck writes: "The concept goes back to Hippocrates, who wrote a treatise on breath aroma and disease around 400 BC. For centuries afterwards, doctors noticed that patients with liver and kidney disorders had distinctive smells to their breath."

Breath analysis can distinguish between benign and malignant pulmonary nodules with 88% accuracy. The same test could assess the specific type and stage of lung cancers. Beck quotes researcher Peter Mazzone as saying, "My vision is being able to say, ‘This is a 60-year old with emphysema who smoked for 30 years–what’s the chance of there being cancer there?’ But we have to teach the device what it looks like first."

He wants to use breath tests in conjunction with CT scans, and says, "If you do a CT scan of the lungs and find a nodule, but the breath test was negative, you could say, ‘I don’t need a biopsy now. I’ll follow it up in six months.’"

Or as Beck writes: "Now scientists are identifying thousands of chemical compounds that create those telltale odors. Tools called mass spectrometers can detect them in quantities as minute as parts per trillion, the equivalent of finding a single ping-pong ball in a thousand baseball fields filled with ping-pong balls."

So the next time a good friend hands you a bottle of mouthwash with a suggestive wink, tell him, "Sorry, that’s just the smell of my liver failing."

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