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Katie Allison Granju is the married mother of five children, ranging in age from toddler to teenager. In addition to blogging for Babble Voices, she also publishes her own blog, Big Good Thing, and she works full time in digital media with a large cable network. When she isn't at work, blogging, or washing someone's socks, Katie enjoys working in her flower garden, riding her bike, and feeding the chickens she keeps in the backyard of her family's large and totally impractical, 113-year-old Victorian house.

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Dr. Mama: Do You Diagnose Your Kids With “Sick Breath?”

By Katie Allison Granju |

C's face has sick breath written all over it.

Night before last, Baby G was up all night long with a fever and general fussiness.  When our family woke up the next morning (Ha! Everyone else in the family “woke up,” but I’d never actually slept all night), I told Jon that I was pretty sure that our 3 year old, C was also sick, likely with whatever had G feeling so rotten. Jon looked puzzled, and asked me why in the world I thought that C was sick.

After all, she didn’t seem feverish – maybe slightly warm, but not anything significant. She hadn’t thrown up, coughed or otherwise demonstrated any obvious symptoms during the overnight hours. She did maybe seem a little crankier than usual  (although C is always pretty damn cranky in the mornings. She is NOT a morning person), but as Jon noted, there was nothing really obvious that would lead him to believe that she was actually sick.

“I have two words for you,” I told him. “Or maybe it’s actually only one word. But however you spell it, it’s sick breath, and it means she is either sick or on the verge of being sick.”

Jon looked at me like I was a complete nutjob, and asked me what in the world I was talking about.  I explained to him that while I may be lacking in many of the iconic mom-skills like cookie-baking, classroom party-planning and the like, I know my sick breath. In the same way that studies have shown that mothers can tell their own babies from other women’s offspring simply by smell, I can tell when my children are sick or getting sick simply by the way their breath smells. When I give one of my children a snuggle, or sleep next to them, and I notice a certain, completely characteristic and completely identifiable, sickly sweet odor wafting out of one of their mouths, particularly when combined with telltale grumpiness, I know what’s up.

After explaining this to Jon, he told me that this was crazytalk. Jon rarely, rarely doubts me on mothering stuff, but in this case, he said that I sounded like the next thing I would tell him was that I could predict the weather with a divining stick. He became even MORE skeptical when I told him that not only could I pre-diagnose oncoming illness – viruses in particular – via sick breath, but that I can also detect nascent fever in one of the kids by kissing the top of their heads, and that using the same noggin-smooching method, I am able to accurately determine what any of my kids’ temperature is within one degree.

These diagnostic methods have definitely become somewhat less reliable as the older kids have grown beyond elementary school, but  I did correctly predict 13 year old E’s oncoming virus as recently as a few months ago. And with the younger two, ages 3 and eight months, my methods are rock solid.

It turns out that C was indeed kind of sick with some sort of little bug. It never went full blown like G’s did, but she has clearly been puny and a bit under the weather for the past two days. However, Jon remains unconvinced. He believes I just had a lucky guess.

So how about you other mamas? Do you know what I’m talking about with the sick breath? How about the mad fever predicting skillz? Do you have those too? Do you think this is some unexplained aspect of maternal biology or something else? Or do you agree with Jon that I am delusional? Tell me in the comments below.

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About Katie Allison Granju

katie-allison-granju

Katie Allison Granju

Katie Allison Granju is the married mother of five children, ranging in age from toddler to teenager. In addition to blogging for Babble Voices, she also publishes her own blog, Big Good Thing. Katie also enjoys working in her flower garden, riding her bike, and feeding the chickens she keeps in the backyard of her family's large Victorian house. Read bio and latest posts → Read Katie Allison's latest posts →

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59 thoughts on “Dr. Mama: Do You Diagnose Your Kids With “Sick Breath?”

  1. erika says:

    oh, silly silly jon.
    yes moms do have the supper powers of knowing that their off spring are getting or already sick by breath. for me, it is how their hands feel. i can not articulate WHAT i feel. i just know it when i feel it.

    and!

    i can predict temp by kissing the forehead.

  2. Brenna says:

    I can’t tell specific temperatures by kissing; I’m limited to ‘normal’, ‘little fever’, or ‘big fever’. But I’m totally with you on the sick breath.

  3. Liz says:

    I could always tell when my oldest was going to be sick within a day because she woke up early. Way early. This passed once she got past the little kids stage, but it was like clockwork.
    I’ve never experienced anything like “sick breath” but I don’t discount the possibility of it’s existence because it sounds totally believable.

  4. Anjii says:

    Exactly what Brenna said… and Katie, your description of what the sick breath smells like is nearly word for word how I explained it to my hubby, once upon a time. He doesn’t really smell it, but he believes me, because he’s seen the evidence many times.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Oh my, we are going through the same thing here. My husband thinks I’m nuts but all of my kids get the “sick breath” too. My 20 month old was cranky, had the sick breath and when I felt his back I told my husband his fever was about 102. He laughed and said I was nuts. I took his temp – 101.9 and later the doctor confirmed ear infection and red throat. We brought my 3 year old too because when I sniffed him he “smelled sick” and sure enough, no fever but red throat and the beginnings of an ear infection. I believe my husband mumbled something later that evening to the effect of “I don’t get it, they were both fine……” lol…..it’s a momma thing….

  6. Annika says:

    My mom used to swear that she could tell if it was too long since we’d eaten based on our breath. She was usually right.

  7. farfalla says:

    My mother swears by the sick breath as well. She can still do it with me, and I’m in my late 20s. She also uses the top of the head kiss for temperature-taking.

  8. Audrey says:

    I don’t have kids, but I can smell my own sick breath :P Seriously, I’ve always noticed that my breath smells and feels a certain way when illness comes on. So I believe you.

  9. Lila says:

    Of course. I recognize it immediately. And I check temperature by feeling their cheeks and forehead with my lips. I’m really curious whether there are mothers who don’t use these methods. And fathers. My husband has the same ability. His fever checking skills are more precise than mine.

  10. Kata says:

    Not so much sick breath, but sick poo, teething poo, sick smelling hair – I can smell the sweat, he smells different if he is sick. But weird… I could also smell sickness on my dog by sniffing in her ears. No visible signs yet of ear infection yet, but it was enough to get that strange smell and infection would appear within a weeek…

  11. Liz says:

    I’m with you, Katie. Two of my three kids have wonky blood sugar problems (we’ve had anything serious ruled out; it really is just wonky), and if they wake up with low blood sugar – even before they show any other symptoms – I’m the only one who can smell it on them. I can also tell if they have any other sort of sickness. It’s always the same sweet and sour smell and I have a hard time believing that my husband CAN’T smell it at all.

  12. Angie says:

    My thirteen year old still gets sick breath, and my husband STILL doesn’t believe me when I tell him I can “smell” it!

  13. FL Mom says:

    No sick breath experience here, but I’m going to guess that the smell comes from whatever waste products the bacteria or virus puts out plus the waste from the white blood cells as they fight the germs. The ability to detect the smell probably depends on a person’s sensitivity to odors. People who grew up with smokers or are smokers themselves, people who used those zinc swabs, and maybe people with sinus trouble may not notice the sick breath. I don’t doubt it exists, and these are just my guesses of what might lie behind it.

  14. Kate says:

    Yep! At my house it’s called “the Mom-mometer”

  15. Jen says:

    Yes, absolutely on the mom/sick breath connection. Though my husband doesn’t doubt me because his nose works oddly.

    It smells like nail polish remover — and you can actually find it by googling acetone breath. Liz is right above it’s a blood sugar thing. I think that their bodies are already geared up to fight whatever and the low blood sugar causes the smell.

    And yes on the fever thing. Although I just tell the doctor that I took it, since they don’t seem to believe in the mom’s lips method.

  16. Robin says:

    The nurse at our Pediatrician’s office diagnoses strep by smelling the child’s breath. She’s never been wrong with my daughter, although they do go through the formality of the test.

  17. Audrey says:

    My childhood pediatrician also used to diagnose strep by breath smell, and he was never wrong. :)

    My husband and I are both good at temperatures by lips (and I believe there was a formal study confirming that parents are good at this).

  18. Emily says:

    Nope, no experience whatsoever with “sick breath”. Never even heard of it! I have three kids. My method is … when they sneeze, I can tell. It’s probably the frequency of the sneezing. They will have no other symptoms, but I’ll notice immediately if they sneeze three times or so, maybe in the space of, say, six hours or something, and it always mean they’ll come down with something the next morning. Fevers I can tell by hand-on-the-forehead. I’m like Brenna, though, I don’t pay too much attention to numbers, it’s either no fever, little fever, or high fever.

  19. Melissa says:

    I have never heard about this Sick Breath! Perhaps the next ill child I have I will have to explore it, though I probably don’t get as far as the breath because I can usually tell just by looking at my kids. Their eyes are always very telling and I can usually spot the sick-glaze before they realize they are sick.

  20. Carrie says:

    This is absolutely true. I can also recognize “sick breath” and can tell if my kids have a fever just by kissing their foreheads. Also, If I put my hands on their abdomen and it feels warm I know they have a high fever.

  21. lisa oram says:

    for me, it’s the eyes. I can tell fever by a glassiness in the eyes.

  22. Sandra says:

    Rock on, Katie. I can also detect sick breath… but only in my son (now 12), rarely if ever in my daughter (10). Now THERE’S a puzzle.

  23. Zoë says:

    Yep, I’m with you. The sick breath from my oldest two kids can leave me reeling, it’s that bad, but luckily a rare occurrence in our house. And just this morning, I knew the 6 month old had a fever the second I put my hand on her chest (back of the neck works well too). So now she is back in bed with a 101 temperature. I’m hoping it’s just a reaction to her 6 month shots yesterday. And I hope Baby G and C are back to their happy, healthy norm soon.

  24. Nelson's Mama says:

    I’ve noticed that my girls smell different when they are sick too. Our pediatrician diagnosed my daughter with strep by smell too (while waiting for the test to come back). A kiss to the forehead always tells me if they have a fever, my lips are my best gauge for that. One of my favorite sayings of my grandmother’s was “that child don’t look right around the eyes”…her country way of stating they looked feverish or sick…and she was usually right.

  25. Jennifer says:

    Oh yeah there is sick breath! And sick farts. Sadly I can tell the difference between some funky food and an actual stomach bug by the er…smell. Ew. As far as fevers, I’m all about the kiss on the forehead and combined with the degree of glassiness in the eyes can predict the degree. Hope everyone is feeling better in your neck of the woods soon!

  26. Mandy says:

    Absolutely yes to knowing the sick breath. I’ve talked to may moms over the years who know the same thing. My husband is a Type 1 diabetic and I can tell when his blood sugars are high my his breath as well.

  27. El says:

    Yep, sick breath and mommy kisses are the way to go.

  28. Metoo! says:

    Yes, I can tell by sick breath and we can BOTH tell the fever within 1 degree just by feeling her.

  29. Freyja says:

    My ex-husband actually does this, but with breath smell and stress. I would have guessed “getting sick” from the photo based on the dark patches under her eyes.

  30. Melissa says:

    We can both tell sick breath, and you are right, it’s a telltale sign of an upper respiratory viral or bacterial infection. I am better with the forehead kiss thermometer.

  31. Anna Marie says:

    I’m with you Katie, but I call it fever breath. I can tell if my kids have a fever without even touching them. I had never even heard of it before I had kids but it is the most reliable indicator of sickness that I know of. Tell Jon you are definitely spot on with this!

  32. saly says:

    I’ll go one further–I can tell when my husband is getting sick. He totally gets the sick breath.

  33. Colleen says:

    THANK GOD!!! My daughter is 3 1/2 and I can ALWAYS tell when she is coming down with something (usually a throat infection) by the smell of her breath! My family Dr. and the walk in Dr. told me I was CRAZY but I have been right every time so far! I spoke to one much much older doc who is actually retired and keeps practicing for “something to do” and he said it is absolutely true that alot of moms can “smell” when their child is getting sick! I KNEW I wasn’t losing it! Thank you thank you thank you !!

  34. Jeannie says:

    I’ve never experienced the “sick breath” but I totally know what you mean about fever. I can tell when one of my kids has a fever, no problem. I also am a firm believer in “mama intuition” when it comes to sick kids: when my oldest was a year old, he was feverish and lethargic and the doctors told me — three visits! — that it was “just a virus”. It was a kidney infection that almost went septic. I’m glad I kept insisting they keep checking things!!

  35. cath young says:

    I never had the “sick” divining rod through breath, feelings or anything, though there were times that I did suspect something wrong without any concrete signs and was right, too right once. But I’ve been wrong too, and would not bet anything seriously on my predicting skills.

    I’ve seen years of doctors offices and hospital waiting rooms filled with kids whose moms were wrong as well as right in their instincts. Never found any poll on the matter.

  36. RS says:

    Like Mandy, I could smell my husband’s high blood sugar when he was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes – it’s a very distinctive fruity smell. But I had no idea what it was until he was diagnosed. Now it’s under control, so I don’t smell it anymore, but I definitely know how to recognize it.

  37. marie says:

    I was never cognizant of this with my kids, but when my mom was in her last years I could tell when something was off by her the way her skin felt. Many times in her last years the doctors tried to shrug off my intuitions, until they got the test results.

  38. Claire R says:

    Definitely know both sick breath and temperatures by kissing foreheads, or pressing cheek-to-cheek. My pediatrician totally believed me on both counts. Plus I could tell when my baby was beginning to teethe before I even saw the tooth, simply because she got a horrible diaper rash. NOBODY believed me on this one until I was right 3 times.

    Mama knows best.

  39. Clisby says:

    I can see why Jon is skeptical, since I have 2 kids and NO IDEA what you’re talking about. But if it works for you, it works.

  40. Deb says:

    I agree with Saly – I can smell sick breath on my husband. It surprises him when I comment that he must not be feeling well. And no, it’s not the same as “bad breath” or “morning breath”. There’s definitely a different smell.

  41. Chrissy says:

    Same here! I can smell sick on his breath up to a week prior to symptoms, and if his eyes look ‘off’. It’s one of those inherant, very human/animal primal bits of motherly instinct things. We’re not as far removed from other mammals as we think we are!

  42. Kaitlyn says:

    I can actually tell *before* my kids get a fever because their foreheads get unusually cool, almost clammy. Seriously. One afternoon we were at a friend’s and my 2yo was cranky. I predicted she was getting sick, hubby thought I was nuts. 12 hours later, who’s fevered and stuffy but my previously daughter who was seen as “just being cranky”. Mommies know.
    I can also tell between “low grade fever” “just warm from something not illness related” and “going to be a bad one” by a mere kiss on the forehead.

  43. Sarah says:

    I am so happy to have this explained! Two months ago, my 6 mth old (my first baby) started having that exact same sweet/sour breath you’re talking about. Because I’m a nervous new mom, I took him to the doctor. The on call dr treated me like I was an idiot for bringing him in with bad breath. Two days later, he had a full on cold/cough/ear infection. I never connected the two! Now I’ll watch (smell) for it!

  44. Lisa says:

    I can always tell when my kids have a fever by putting my hand on their foreheads. I can’t guess temp but I can tell if it is high or low fever. Hubby can’t do it at all.

  45. Mel says:

    I’m with you on this one, Katie. My hubs gets the sick breath more than my kids. Hubs had it on a Sunday morning, that night he has his appendix out. It’s a Mom/wife thing!

  46. Regina says:

    Absolutely! And the way my son “fidgits” with his foot on the sofa – twisting it around and around back and forth…. just like his momma does when she is in denial about feeling sick to her stomach. When I see that foot twitch – I know it is time to grab the bucket and have it nearby!

  47. NJMama says:

    I could always tell when my little ones were sick because their under-eye area always changes to a light, almost bruised, bluish color. Your daughters under-eye area looks similar. As for the breath, yes, that too. But I never really had to smell the breath to know-I already knew.

  48. Em says:

    My 4 kids absolutely get sick breath. Identical sick breath, all of them.
    I know the smell very well; sweet with a hint of ferment.

    A dr friend once told me that studies have confirmed parental competence detecting fevers by touch.

  49. Leslie says:

    I always know when my littlest is getting sick because that is the only time her breath smells bad. She still has sweet baby breath otherwise. So I guess that is similar to “sick breath.” I also can always tell fever, but I feel their backs. My mother can diagnose ear infections by the look in a child’s eyes.

  50. Lisa says:

    Yes! Although my smell sense isn’t focused on breath but on their whole bodies — they just smell different when they are sick (sweat? something) and I always know even before it happens. My husband can’t smell it — but he believes me.

    Sometimes their skin feels different too — a little rougher? Has anyone else noticed that?

    My dad was amazing with a kiss on the forehead to tell your temp. My husband and I are both pretty good – but wow, my dad could get it to a tenth of a degree! Such a gift :)

    Finally — does anyone else’s kid give a little cough before throwing up? My husband and I joke about “TCTPTV” (the cough that precedes the vomit)… different from your regular run of the mill cough or your croupy cough, but definitely its own beast. Sometimes there is even enough time to get to their room with a bucket. Sometimes!

  51. Nadia says:

    My mom is a nicu nurse and said she could smell my sons breath and tell e was sick… She then explained some scientific reason behind it but I don’t remember the details

  52. linda says:

    Yes! I’ve always said this. I call it “breath of doom.”

  53. Stephanie says:

    We have sick breath at my house RIGHT NOW! I can usually even tell the difference between a plain ol’ sinus infection and strep throat or some other type of bug. My mom used to diagnose us the same way.

  54. Dawn Meehan says:

    I totally understand “sick breath”! I thought I was a weirdo! It’s nice to see so many other moms can understand this. My kids used to get a ton of ear infections. I could always smell when their ears were infected. The ENT told me I was insane.

  55. Sue Taylor says:

    “Sickbreath” Eeeew. I know it. I know it well. It smells like rotting sinuses to me.
    You have mom-tuition! Too funny!

  56. Fremont says:

    Yes! Well, maybe not specifically breath in our case, but there’s definitely a “sick smell.” My husband and I have both noticed this with our daughter, especially when she was a baby. When she was coming down with something she would smell a certain way. By the next day she’d have full-on symptoms, fever, vomiting, whatever. A mama’s nose knows.

  57. rachel says:

    Sick breath is real! I can tell which one is for sniffles, cough and which one predicts the barf fest!

  58. Michelle says:

    Absolutely! Not only can I tell my 2 yr is (or will be) sick but my husband too!

  59. Denise says:

    My daughter is now 31 and her sick breath is how I could always tell if she was really ill or faking when she was at school (she was ill a lot). My grandson now gets it too. It’s 100% accurate. It’s also very real as it’s due to acetone being produced, apparently diabetics get it too. So tell your husband that no you’re not imagining it and Mom always knows best. Sorry I’m a couple of years late posting, but I’ve only just come across this as was googling for info on this topic, as I saw a t.v. Doctor mention this phenomena.

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