Sweet-Smelling Breath Holds Promise as Tool for Diagnosing Diabetes

A simple breath test may be able to quickly and noninvasively diagnose children who have Type 1 diabetes, according to new research from the United Kingdom. Every year, more than 15,000 children (and 15,000 adults) in the United States are diagnosed with Type 1.

Roughly one in four children who have Type 1 diabetes are not diagnosed until they develop diabetic ketoacidosis, a severe and potentially fatal hyperglycemic (high blood glucose) condition that develops when the body lacks the insulin to convert glucose into energy and instead begins to break down fat. By-products of this process known as ketones can build up and cause the body to become acidic.

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Previous studies have indicated that gases in the breath are related to blood glucose and blood ketone levels in adults with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. To determine whether this is also true in children, researchers in Oxford collected breath samples from 113 children and adolescents with Type 1 diabetes between the ages of 7 and 18. Levels of the breath gases isoprene and acetone were measured and compared to blood glucose and blood ketone levels taken from the capillaries during the same visit.

Although there was no link between isoprene or acetone levels in the breath and glucose levels in the blood, the researchers did find a significant association between increased levels of breath acetone and increased levels of blood ketones.

“Our results have shown that it is realistically possible to use measurements of breath acetone to estimate blood ketones,” says study coauthor Gus Hancock, PhD. “We are working on the development of a small hand held device that would allow the possibility of breath measurements for ketone levels and help to identify children with new diabetes before DKA supervenes. Currently testing for diabetes requires a blood test, which can be traumatic for children.”

Hancock further notes that, if the association between breath acetone and blood ketone levels holds true at higher ketone levels, breath testing may be useful in preventing the development of diabetic ketoacidosis in children with diabetes who are sick.

For more information, read the article “Sweet-smelling breath to help diabetes diagnosis in children” or see the study’s abstract in the Journal of Breath Research. And to learn more about diabetes in children, click here.