Sniffing Out the Smell of Disease

 In Blogs

As reported in the Science Daily University of Leicester chemist and microbiologist have developed an “electronic nose”, which is sniffing out the smell of disease of the killer superbug Clostridium difficile, C. difficile or C. diff., as it is known for short.

Using a mass spectrometer, the research team has demonstrated that it is possible to identify the unique smell of C-diff  in feces which would lead to rapid diagnosis of the condition, which they hope in the future will help doctors diagnose the disease more rapidly and prevent it from spreading. C. difficile causes high fever, abdominal cramping diarrhea and is prevalent in hospitals and nursing homes.  The condition primarily occurs in those that have taken antibiotics that destroy the normal intestinal flora allowing the superbug to overtake the gut. Like other superbugs, the bacteria and its spores can survive for many weeks and even months on objects and surfaces, with the spores even being resistant to some antimicrobial cleaners.  The “electronic nose” is so advanced it is also able to detect different strains of C. difficile, currently most tests do not give information on the strain of C. difficile that is causing the infection.

This research is published on-line in the journal Metabolomics and on

I am happy that physicians will now have a “nose” to detect C. difficile, but I bet if you ask most experienced nurses they will tell you, that they can with 100% accuracy detect by scent which of their patients is infected with C.diff, well before any lab tests confirm it.  C. difficile causes such a distinct odor that once you have experienced it, is not easily forgotten, is easily detectible and recognizable for future diagnostic purposes!

Although these aroma detection skills were not necessarily taught in nursing school but were acquired through the “school of experience”, a lot can be learned from nurses with an acute sense of smell. Just ask around and you will have nurses attest that he/she can recognize, using only their olfactory senses, diseases such as:

  • neurological diseases such as brain injuries, stroke- these odors come from the mouth
  • gastrointestinal bleeds
  • sepsis
  • urinary tract infections
  • fecal impactions
  • renal disease
  • candida infections
  • pseudomonas
  • cirrhosis of the liver
  • ketosis

Now if you want to have some fun, let’s have nurses actually describe what these disease odors smell like. The adjectives nurses can conjure up are only second to their disease perfume detection aptitude.  How awesome are the assessment skills we develop as nurses?  I bet given the chance to whiff a few of the different strains of Clostridium difficile, nurses would soon be able to detect those as well. But until then we have a new nifty device to help us out and confirm what we already know.  The nose knows, at least the nurse’s nose does.

AlixaRx guest blog written by Capra Dalton, RN. Capra Dalton is the CEO and author of Pedagogy Education infusion continuing education courses. 

Capra Dalton, Registered Nurse, has more than 28 years of experience in infusion therapy and the instruction of licensed nurses in infusion therapy continuing education. Her experience comes from multiple infusion settings: acute care, ambulatory infusion centers, home infusion, long term care continuing education provider, and long term care pharmacy quality assurance consultant. As the CEO, Capra is responsible for all operational aspects of Pedagogy, including education course content, author recruitment, and management. She is a member of the National Nurses in Business Association and received her nursing education from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Capra has an avid interest in holistic healing, nutrition, herbs, and alternative therapies for the treatment of disease in humans as well as animals. She and her husband, Patrick, live on a ranch near Tyler, Texas.