Having tummy troubles? Bowel discomfort? Do you suspect the problem may be related to dairy? If consuming milk products like yogurt, cheese and ice cream causes abdominal pain or diarrhea, you may want to consider taking a hydrogen breath test to get some answers about how your digestive system is functioning and if you’ve developed an intolerance to lactose.

Test details

The hydrogen breath test can be an effective way of figuring out if your body’s having trouble digesting lactose (the sugar in milk). This noninvasive diagnostic test – which also tests for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth – measures your hydrogen levels by collecting breath samples through a special mouthpiece after you’ve consumed a sugar solution.

Samples are taken every 15 to 20 minutes for up to three hours. Your body will release increased hydrogen levels if it’s unable to digest and absorb the lactose, which the test will detect.

“While a hydrogen breath test can be conveniently done at home or at work ... you may want to schedule an appointment with your doctor.”

Rules of thumb

The Mayo Clinic advises that four weeks before taking a hydrogen breath test, it’s important to abstain from taking any antibiotics or medicine aimed to relieve digestive or bowel-related issues, as well as having any bowel-cleansing procedure (like a colonoscopy or enema). Avoid smoking the day before and day of the test as it can affect the results, and steer clear of chewing gum and mouthwash.

As with many medical tests, don’t eat or drink anything, including water (a small amount for brushing your teeth is acceptable), for eight hours prior to testing. While a hydrogen breath test can be conveniently done at home or at work through a kit that provides you with the drink, mouthpiece and bags, you may want to schedule an appointment with your doctor if you don’t feel comfortable performing the test yourself.

Once you know the results, discuss treatment options and next steps with your doctor, which can include changes to your diet and/or medication.