The prevalence of bronchial hyperreactivity to inhaled methacholine and of a clinical history of symptoms of asthma was determined in a birth cohort of 9 year old New Zealand children. A history of current or previous recurrent wheezing was obtained in 220 of 815 children. Of 800 who had spirometric tests, 27 (3.4%) had resting airflow obstruction (FEV1/FVC less than 75%). Methacholine challenge was undertaken without problem in 766 children, the abbreviated protocol being based on five breaths and four concentrations. A fall in FEV1 of more than 20% was observed in 176 children (23% of challenges, 22% of the full cohort) after inhalation of methacholine in concentrations of up to 25 mg/ml. The prevalence of bronchial reactivity in children with symptoms was related to the frequency of wheezing episodes in the last year, and the degree of reactivity to the interval since the last episode. Sixty four children (8.0%) with no history of wheeze or recurrent dry cough were, however, also responsive to methacholine 25 mg/ml or less, while 35% of children with current or previous wheezing did not respond to any dose of methacholine. Bronchial challenge by methacholine inhalation was not sufficiently sensitive or specific to be useful as a major criterion for the diagnosis of asthma in epidemiological studies. The occurrence of airway reactivity in children without symptoms of asthma, however, raises the possibility that adult onset asthma and the development of airways obstruction in some subjects with chronic bronchitis could have origins in childhood.
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