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Hydrogen Breath Testing


Hydrogen breath testing is a diagnostic method that can let you know of potential problems that you have with digesting and absorbing foods.  But what exactly is it and how does it work?  Read on for more.

What is Hydrogen Breath Testing?

Hydrogen breath testing is a method of testing that is designed to measure the hydrogen levels in the breath.  This is useful in diagnosing conditions that cause gastrointestinal symptoms.  In human bodies, only anaerobic bacteria are able to produce hydrogen.  These bacteria produce hydrogen when they are exposed to food that is not properly absorbed, especially sugars and carbohydrates.  Little amounts of hydrogen are produced by the small amount of food that reaches the colon before it is properly absorbed.  Larger amounts of hydrogen occur when there is a problem either with the digestion or absorption of food in the small intestine, enabling more unabsorbed food to reach the colon.  Larger amounts of hydrogen can also be produced by bacterial overgrowth of the small bowel, something that occurs when bacteria from the colon move into the small intestine.  In this case, the food has not had the chance for proper digestion and absorption.  Some of the hydrogen made by the bacteria moves into the bloodstream where it travels to the lungs to be exhaled through the breath.  By measuring the breath, the levels of hydrogen in the body can be determined.

Uses for Hydrogen Breath Testing

Hydrogen breath testing is used to diagnose three primary conditions.  The first is where dietary sugars are not properly absorbed, the most common of these being lactose.  People that cannot digest lactose are lactose intolerant.  Other sugars that may cause a person problems include sucrose, fructose, and sorbitol.  Hydrogen breath testing can also be used to diagnose bacterial overgrowth of the small bowel.  The last condition it is used for is for diagnosing the rapid passage of food through the small intestine.  This does not give the small intestine enough time to digest and absorb sugars and carbohydrates.  All of these conditions can cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea.

The Hydrogen Breath Testing Process

Before the testing is carried out, the person needs to fast for at least twelve hours.  At the start of the procedure, the person fills a balloon with air.  The amount of hydrogen in this breath is measured.  After this, the person consumes a small amount of the test sugar – which may be lactose, sucrose, fructose, sorbitol, etc.  The type of sugar consumed depends on the reason for the test.  Further breath samples are taken and analysed for hydrogen every fifteen minutes for three and up to five hours.  An increase in the amount of hydrogen in the samples means that there is a problem with digestion and absorption.

Contraindications for Hydrogen Breath Testing

You cannot undergo hydrogen breath testing if you have had a colonoscopy, barium enema, or any other test that requires bowel prep, as the bowel prep will cleanse the bacteria.  If you have had one of these tests, you will need to wait at least four weeks in order to allow the bacteria to re-establish themselves in the colon.  Do not smoke the day before or on the day of the test as it can affect the result.  On the day of the test, don’t chew gum or use mouthwash and use only a small amount of water to brush your teeth.  Don’t eat or drink anything, including water for the specified amount of time before the test.


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