Breath hydrogen testing in bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine

Gastroenterology. 1988 Oct;95(4):982-8. doi: 10.1016/0016-5085(88)90173-4.


The indirect, noninvasive technique of breath hydrogen (H2) analysis was evaluated in 45 patients suspected of having bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine. Bacterial overgrowth, defined as a jejunal culture yielding at least 10(5) organisms/ml, was present in 27 patients. After dietary preparation and a 12-h fast, subjects received in random order and on separate days 50 g of glucose or 50 g of rice flour in the form of two pancakes. Normal values were established in 20 healthy controls. Twelve of 27 patients with proven bacterial overgrowth had an elevated (greater than 15 ppm) fasting breath H2 level on at least 1 test day. Fifteen of 18 patients with negative cultures had low fasting breath H2 levels. Based on values in controls, a positive breath test was defined as an increase in breath H2 of greater than or equal to 12 ppm after glucose or greater than or equal to 14 ppm after rice flour. A 2-h glucose breath H2 test had a sensitivity of 93% and a specificity of 78% in the diagnosis of overgrowth. The predictive value of a positive test was 86% and that of a negative test was 88%. The combination of both a high fasting breath H2 level and a diagnostic rise of breath H2 after glucose was present in 41% of patients with overgrowth and in none of the patients without overgrowth. Extending the test to 4 h did not increase sensitivity, but decreased specificity. Rice flour was a less satisfactory substrate in predicting the presence of bacterial overgrowth. In conclusion, a high fasting breath H2 level after dietary preparation suggests bacterial overgrowth but lacks sensitivity. The finding of a rise in breath H2 of at least 12 ppm within 2 h of a 50-g glucose challenge is a simple screen for bacterial overgrowth. The combined criteria of a high fasting breath H2 level and a significant rise after glucose are specific for bacterial overgrowth.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bacterial Infections / metabolism*
  • Bacterial Infections / microbiology
  • Breath Tests*
  • Celiac Disease / metabolism*
  • Diarrhea / metabolism*
  • Eating
  • Fasting
  • Female
  • Glucose / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Intestine, Small / microbiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nitrogen / analysis*


  • Glucose
  • Nitrogen