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Determining Disease by Smell

by Ron Kurtus (25 June 2013)

In your normal, healthy condition, you emit various odors from your breath and perspiration. Also, your stool and urine have odors, primarily from what you have eaten. However, when you are ill or have a disease, the smells can be distinctly different that what is considered normal.

It is possible to determine or get a clue as to what disease or ailment you have from these odors. Methods to diagnose disease by smell include those done by humans, by dogs, and by special devices.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions. Health Disclaimer

Human detection of disease

People can often tell when another person is sick or has a disease, both by how the person looks and by his or her odor.

You often familiar with the normal odors of family members and close friends. When someone close to you is sick, you may be able to tell the perosn "just doesn't small right." However, an untrained person probably cannot determine what the illness is.

At one time doctors used their sense of smell to dagnose the health of a patient. These days, few physicians are trained in using their sense of smell in diagnosing patients.

(See When Doctors Used to Smell for more information.)

Dogs can smell some diseases

Dogs have an extremely sensitve sense of smell. For years dogs have been used to sniff out explosives and drugs and have been trained to track criminals and find missing children. Now they are being used to detect illnesses and diseases in people.

Recent medical studies have shown the ability of dogs to detect the some cancers, such as melanoma. Further studies may show the ability to detect other diseases. They have also been used to warn of epileptic seizures, low blood sugar, and even heart attacks. However in such cases, they may be detecting behavior changes instead of changes in odors.

Scientists have been working with dogs to see if they can be trained to reliably diagnose certain forms of cancer by smell. This will help doctors catch these diseases earlier than conventional diagnostic tools currently allow.

Device to smell diseases

The Cyranose 320 is an electronic dectector of smells. It has been used by food companies to spot-test raw materials for spoilage or contamination. The Cyranose 320 is also used by chemical and petrochemical companies.

Note: The name "Cryanose" is a take-off on famed 17th century French poet Cyrano de Bergerac, who was said to have an enormous nose.

Since a person with an illness or disease often exhales air with a distinct chemical signature, that information can be used to help determine the disease. The Cyranose device was used to diagnosed cases of pneumonia and sinusitis at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The results were not perfect, but they were reliable enough to serve as a screening test.


Since ill people often emit or exhale various odors from their breath and perspiration, it is possible to determine or get a clue as to what disease or ailment the person has. Some physcians have been trained to detect illnesses through their sense of smell. Dogs are being trained to smell diseases, such as cancer. A device called the Cyranose is being tested to detect diseases.

Observe and learn

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


Smelling Diseases - Science Net Links magazine

Canine sense of smell could help diagnose disease - NBC News

Cyrano "Nose" the Smell of Success - NASA

General Health Resources


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