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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Health Center

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Breath Test Helps Sniff Out Irritable Bowel Syndrome

WebMD Health News

Dec. 13, 2000 -- Up to 80% of all irritable bowel syndrome sufferers may be infected with bacteria that overgrows in the intestines. And researchers found that a special breathalyzer test can detect the condition, which is treatable with antibiotics.

"This is very dramatic, in my opinion," says lead author says Mark Pimentel, MD, whose study appears in the December issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology. "If we get rid of the overgrowth [of bacteria], patients get dramatically better."

Approximately 20% of the adult population suffers from irritable bowel syndrome. The condition, which is characterized by bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and/or constipation, affects twice as many women as men.

Pimentel and colleagues tested more than 200 people who had symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. For the breath testing, patients first were required to swallow a special kind of syrup. The machine then took a sample of their breath every 15 minutes for three hours.

The test, which tracks the level of gases in the air you exhale, isn't new. Doctors have used it for decades to check for bacterial infections in people who have had bowel surgery or other intestinal problems.

"Nobody had actually looked at [the test] before in a person with a normal bowel," says Pimentel, assistant director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "The thing that's striking about irritable bowel is there is always bloating, gas, and distention. The only way gas can be created in the intestine is to have bacteria present."

But he stresses that the bacteria isn't an infection. On the contrary, it's actually normal to have bacteria in your body, but it's supposed to stay in your colon. It doesn't cause problems until it overgrows and gets into an area where food is absorbed into the body.

Approximately 78% of people in the study had positive breath tests, meaning they had definite overgrowth of the bacteria in their intestines. Those who were positive were then treated with antibiotics for 10 days. When they returned, they were again tested to see if the bacteria was still present. Of people in whom the bacteria was completely gone, 48% also no longer had symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

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