Can a breathalyzer tell if you have a sinus infection?

Sinusitis is one of the most common chronic diseases yet it can be surprisingly hard to diagnose because it presents with symptoms similar those resulting from allergies and other respiratory disorders like nasal polyps. If your symptoms last for more than a couple of months, then you may have chronic sinusitis which occurs when your sinuses become swollen and inflamed for a longer period of time.

Fortunately, researchers at Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Hadera, Israel have developed a breathalyzer prototype that can determine if you have sinus disease vs allergies, etc. by detecting chemical compounds in your breath.

Breathalyzer technology adapted for sinusitis

The technical term for this type of analysis is “breath volatomics” which refers to the measurement of volatile compounds in the breath. This is the same science employed by alcohol breathalyzers.

The researchers created a stainless steel test chamber outfitted with chemical sensors based on either nano-sized gold particles or carbon nanotubes combined with conductive polymers. The sensors were paired with pattern recognition software calibrated to respond to the metabolic byproducts typically exhaled by patients with chronic sinus disease and nasal polyps. These are the same compounds that are responsible for the halitosis (bad breath) experienced by some sinus sufferers.

How do you collect bad breath?

They recruited 71 volunteers who were divided into three groups based on the results of nasal endoscopy: those who were diagnosed with sinus disease, those who were diagnosed with nasal polyps and those who were healthy (aka the control group.)

Each volunteer was asked to breathe in a standardized, controlled manner and then exhale into a mouthpiece connected to a specially designed absorption tube. The impact of asthma was also assessed to ensure that the breath samples were volumetrically equivalent. The tubes were subsequently heated to release the trapped volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the sensor chamber where they were analyzed by the nano-material array.

Results show promise

The gold and carbon nano-sensors were easily able to tell the difference between patients with sinusitis and the control group (with an impressive 87% sensitivity.) The device was somewhat less adept at distinguishing between patients with chronic sinusitis and nasal polyps (82% sensitivity). These results demonstrate the feasibility of using a breathalyzer to screen patients for sinusitis-related conditions. This type of device could be especially useful for a  primary care physician who is not a sinus specialist. Proper diagnosis could help doctors from over-prescribing antibiotics or from chosing a treatment for the wrong disease.  

How can you tell if you have sinus disease right now?

If you suffer from runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion, decreased sense of smell, or facial pain and pressure you may have a cold, sinus disease or even seasonal allergies. Unfortunately the “sinus breathalyzer” is still in the prototype stage so it’s not available for use by your doctor. But you can schedule a consultation with Dr. Caballero at Advanced Sinus and Allergy Center to help you breathe better and enjoy life again.

To learn more

Call (847) 655-7442 or click the “Request Appointment” button at the top of this page.


Randy Schueller Randy is Director of Operations for Advanced Sinus and Allergy Center. He has over 30 years experience in Research and Development and is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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