For so many diseases and medical conditions, early detection is the most effective means to limit or avoid the damage that the condition may cause. While doctors are able to detect a number of conditions directly, in many cases nothing will be known until blood tests are performed and the results analyzed. In other cases, a biopsy or tissue extraction is required so that the tissue may be analyzed to diagnose a condition.
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To aid in earlier and faster diagnosis, researchers have been investigating approaches to analyze the chemicals that in our breath in order to detect specific medical conditions. Doctors have used their noses for many years to observe symptoms like the "fruity" breath from those with diabetes
or the breath smelling of urine in the case of those with kidney failure. While the chemical analysis of breath is not new, the list of conditions that can be detected through this technique continues to grow.
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When considering what our breath might tell about our health, detection of problems with the lungs and digestive system makes sense because of the direct physical connection of the mouth and nose to the lungs and stomach. In fact, a number of conditions related to these organs can be detected. For the lungs, cystic fibrosis (CF) and tuberculosis (TB) can be detected because of the distinct gases being generated by the bacteria in the lungs of people with these diseases. Additionally, some forms of lung cancer can be detected based on the chemicals being generated. For the stomach, ulcers are detectable using this analysis.
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As for other conditions, considering that a doctor can smell the urine or ammonia smell in a patient's breath, its no surprise that the measuring devices can detect kidney failure with great ease and sooner than the doctor would. Similarly, these devices are able to detect diabetes, breast cancer,
colon cancer
and even liver disease. In detecting liver problems, these techniques have even been used to differentiate between different forms of liver ailment. The same techniques are also being analyzed to detect heart rejection in heart transplant patients.
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While some products for breath-based detection of illness are on the market, many others are being developed and honed for detection accuracy. After all, false diagnosis of conditions will benefit nobody. Some predict that more sophisticated devices will be on the market and widely available in 5 years. These sorts of devices should be able to detect a whole range of conditions and will then become very useful tools. In order to detect a great number of conditions however, research will be needed to relate the specific chemical combinations being exhaled with specific conditions.
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If these devices become common, they have the potential to drastically reduce health care costs through much earlier disease detection and by their ability to screen large numbers of people with little effort. Imagine a new fixture in your local shopping mall, right beside the ubiquitous photo booth, where for a couple of dollars, one could purchase peace of mind.
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