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Diagnostic strategies currently used for pneumonia are time-consuming, lack accuracy and suffer from large inter-observer variability. Exhaled breath contains thousands of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include products of host and pathogen metabolism. In this systematic review we investigated the use of so-called 'breathomics' for diagnosing pneumonia. A Medline search yielded 18 manuscripts reporting on animal and human studies using organic and inorganic molecules in exhaled breath, that all could be used to answer whether analysis of VOC profiles could potentially improve the diagnostic process of pneumonia. Papers were categorised based on their specific aims; the exclusion of pneumonia; the detection of specific respiratory pathogens; and whether targeted or untargeted VOC analysis was used. Ten studies reported on the association between VOCs and presence of pneumonia. Eight studies demonstrated a difference in exhaled VOCs between pneumonia and controls; in the individual studies this discrimination was based on unique sets of VOCs. Eight studies reported on the accuracy of a breath test for a specific respiratory pathogen: five of these concerned pre-clinical studies in animals. All studies were valued as having a high risk of bias, except for one study that used an external validation cohort. The findings in the identified studies are promising. However, as yet no breath test has been shown to have sufficient diagnostic accuracy for pneumonia. We are in need of studies that further translate the knowledge from discovery studies to clinical practice.

Original publication





Journal of breath research

Publication Date





Department of Intensive Care, Academic Medical Centre, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Animals, Humans, Pneumonia, Breath Tests, Exhalation, Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry, Volatile Organic Compounds, Electronic Nose