January 03, 2024

What Does Cancer Breath Smell Like?

Woman smelling a pink rose

Cancer is a complex disease in which cells grow uncontrollably, affecting the tissue around them and potentially impacting body processes like metabolism. It can develop in any organ, tissue, or structure in the body.

Cancer produces a wide variety of symptoms that doctors use to diagnose it. Increasingly, studies are investigating the possibility of using volatile organic compounds to help detect cancer.

What Are Volatile Organic Compounds?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are substances released into the air with specific odors. Every time you exhale, you breathe out VOCs. That’s true whether you are healthy or suffering from an illness or disease.

What doctors and researchers are trying to determine is how the cellular and tissue changes that cancer causes affect the VOCs your body produces. Preliminary indications are that changes in VOC odor can be useful in detecting cancer. However, research is ongoing as experts work to pin down the specifics of VOCs and cancer diagnosis.

Cancer Breath Varies Based on Multiple Factors

One of the challenges in using exhalations to detect cancer is that there are many types of cancer, and they can affect many areas that impact the breath. For example, cancers of the mouth are different from those of the stomach or lungs, but all three may affect the breath. Also complicating this type of diagnosis is the reality that other factors affect breath odor, like the foods a person consumes and their general oral health.

Consequently, there’s no universal “cancer smell” that the body produces. This differs from certain other diseases, such as diabetes, which produces a telltale odor often described as either fruity or like acetone or nail polish.

However, regardless of the characteristics of your exhalations, if you or a friend or loved one notices a significant change in your breath odor, it’s important to pay attention to it. You might start by asking your dentist about your oral health. Issues like gum disease can affect your breath, and it’s possible that simply improving your oral care routine and getting regular dental cleanings can resolve the issue.

You should also talk with your doctor, especially if greater attention to your oral care doesn’t reduce the odor.

Symptoms to Consider Along with Breath Changes

Changes in breath odor may be more significant if they occur in combination with other symptoms. For example, new or worsening bad breath along with sores in your mouth, a lump in your throat, hoarseness, or persistent ear pain is more likely to indicate a health problem and potentially cancer.

Of course, minor illnesses like the common cold with an accompanying sore throat can cause bad breath. As a result, changes in breath odor should get your attention, and you should take action if they are particularly severe or persistent, but they’re not necessarily signs of cancer.

Cancer Breath Caused by Treatment

Another way that cancer can affect your breath is through the treatment you receive. For instance, vomiting is a potential side effect of chemotherapy that can cause your breath to have an unpleasant odor.

Cancer treatments can also cause dry mouth and the resulting bad breath. In addition, people getting cancer treatment may develop painful sores in their mouths, which makes it difficult to maintain proper oral hygiene. Plus, the sores can become infected, adding to the unpleasant odor.

If you’re being treated for cancer, your care team can advise you on how to address these issues.

Talk with Your Baptist Health Doctor About Changes in Your Breath Odor

If you have questions or concerns about a significant or persistent change in your breath odor that doesn’t seem to be associated with something like a change in your diet, contact your Baptist Health doctor. They can tell you whether a physical exam or diagnostic testing is appropriate.

You can use our online provider directory to find a physician near you if you don’t have one.

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