The importance of methane breath testing: a review

J Breath Res. 2013 Jun;7(2):024001. doi: 10.1088/1752-7155/7/2/024001. Epub 2013 Mar 8.


Sugar malabsorption in the bowel can lead to bloating, cramps, diarrhea and other symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome as well as affecting absorption of other nutrients. The hydrogen breath test is now a well established noninvasive test for assessing malabsorption of sugars in the small intestine. However, there are patients who can suffer from the same spectrum of malabsorption issues but who produce little or no hydrogen, instead producing relatively large amounts of methane. These patients will avoid detection with the traditional breath test for malabsorption based on hydrogen detection. Likewise the hydrogen breath test is an established method for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) diagnoses. Therefore, a number of false negatives would be expected for patients who solely produce methane. Usually patients produce either hydrogen or methane, and only rarely there are significant co-producers, as typically the methane is produced at the expense of hydrogen by microbial conversion of carbon dioxide. Various studies show that methanogens occur in about a third of all adult humans; therefore, there is significant potential for malabsorbers to remain undiagnosed if a simple hydrogen breath test is used. As an example, the hydrogen-based lactose malabsorption test is considered to result in about 5-15% false negatives mainly due to methane production. Until recently methane measurements were more in the domain of research laboratories, unlike hydrogen analyses which can now be undertaken at a relatively low cost mainly due to the invention of reliable electrochemical hydrogen sensors. More recently, simpler lower cost instrumentation has become commercially available which can directly measure both hydrogen and methane simultaneously on human breath. This makes more widespread clinical testing a realistic possibility. The production of small amounts of hydrogen and/or methane does not normally produce symptoms, whereas the production of higher levels can lead to a wide range of symptoms ranging from functional disorders of the bowel to low level depression. It is possible that excess methane levels may have more health consequences than excess hydrogen levels. This review describes the health consequences of methane production in humans and animals including a summary of the state of the art in detection methods. In conclusion, the combined measurement of hydrogen and methane should offer considerable improvement in the diagnosis of malabsorption syndromes and SIBO when compared with a single hydrogen breath test.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breath Tests / methods*
  • Exhalation
  • Humans
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / metabolism
  • Lactose Intolerance / diagnosis*
  • Lactose Intolerance / metabolism
  • Methane / analysis*


  • Methane