The human volatilome: volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in exhaled breath, skin emanations, urine, feces and saliva

J Breath Res. 2014 Sep;8(3):034001. doi: 10.1088/1752-7155/8/3/034001. Epub 2014 Jun 19.


Breath analysis is a young field of research with its roots in antiquity. Antoine Lavoisier discovered carbon dioxide in exhaled breath during the period 1777-1783, Wilhelm (Vilém) Petters discovered acetone in breath in 1857 and Johannes Müller reported the first quantitative measurements of acetone in 1898. A recent review reported 1765 volatile compounds appearing in exhaled breath, skin emanations, urine, saliva, human breast milk, blood and feces. For a large number of compounds, real-time analysis of exhaled breath or skin emanations has been performed, e.g., during exertion of effort on a stationary bicycle or during sleep. Volatile compounds in exhaled breath, which record historical exposure, are called the 'exposome'. Changes in biogenic volatile organic compound concentrations can be used to mirror metabolic or (patho)physiological processes in the whole body or blood concentrations of drugs (e.g. propofol) in clinical settings-even during artificial ventilation or during surgery. Also compounds released by bacterial strains like Pseudomonas aeruginosa or Streptococcus pneumonia could be very interesting. Methyl methacrylate (CAS 80-62-6), for example, was observed in the headspace of Streptococcus pneumonia in concentrations up to 1420 ppb. Fecal volatiles have been implicated in differentiating certain infectious bowel diseases such as Clostridium difficile, Campylobacter, Salmonella and Cholera. They have also been used to differentiate other non-infectious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. In addition, alterations in urine volatiles have been used to detect urinary tract infections, bladder, prostate and other cancers. Peroxidation of lipids and other biomolecules by reactive oxygen species produce volatile compounds like ethane and 1-pentane. Noninvasive detection and therapeutic monitoring of oxidative stress would be highly desirable in autoimmunological, neurological, inflammatory diseases and cancer, but also during surgery and in intensive care units. The investigation of cell cultures opens up new possibilities for elucidation of the biochemical background of volatile compounds. In future studies, combined investigations of a particular compound with regard to human matrices such as breath, urine, saliva and cell culture investigations will lead to novel scientific progress in the field.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breath Tests / methods*
  • Exhalation*
  • Feces / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Saliva / chemistry*
  • Skin / chemistry*
  • Volatile Organic Compounds / analysis*
  • Volatile Organic Compounds / urine*


  • Volatile Organic Compounds