Does disease smell?
Many diseases and conditions have their own “breathprint,” and this may soon pave the way for earlier detection and diagnosis.
Body odour can be a sign of more than just someone forgetting to put on their deodorant. Researchers have long known that certain illnesses including cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease cast particular odours, says Alan Hirsch, MD, the Neurological Director of the Smell & Taste Research and Treatment Foundation in Chicago.
While scent tests to diagnose disease are not quite ready for prime time, research is ongoing, says Dr. Hirsch, also the author of several books including Nutrition and Sensation.
Why do diseases smell?
Diseases change the way a body works, says Yehuda Zeiri, PhD, a biomedical engineer at Ben-Gurion University’s Kiryat Bergman Campus in Be’er-Sheva, Israel. “When disease leads to enhancement of new and different biochemical processes in the body, these processes may lead to the production of small volatile molecules,” he explains. “These [molecules] can be transported by the blood to the lungs and be released in exhaled breath; they can also be released in the urine and sweat.”
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Diagnosing diseases through smell
Researchers are developing ways to detect the scent of disease. “According to the scientific literature there is evidence that the scent may contain markers for lung cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, melanoma and more,” Dr. Zeiri says. In the future, doctors may be able to spot cancer, diabetes, kidney disease and a host of other conditions solely by their smell – and well before other symptoms show up. Read on for some of the conditions that doctors can now – or will soon – detect by smell…