BACKGROUND: Exercise has been proposed as a useful challenge test for the measurement of bronchial responsiveness in community surveys of the prevalence of childhood asthma. This study aimed to develop a standardised exercise challenge in which the sensitivity to detect asthma was increased by inhalation of dry air. METHODS: Sixty four children aged 12-13 years who had reported wheeze in the past 12 months and 70 control subjects were invited to participate in an exercise challenge at school. Subjects performed eight minutes of cycle exercise while breathing dry air at a workload calculated to produce a minute ventilation of 60% maximum voluntary ventilation during the final three minutes. A fall in forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) of 10% or more from baseline was considered a positive test. Data on recent asthma symptoms, asthma morbidity, and use of medication were collected by parent completed questionnaires in those subjects who reported wheeze in the past 12 months. Repeatability of the exercise test was determined in a further 13 children with known asthma. RESULTS: Fifty five children (88%) who reported wheeze in the previous 12 months and 54 control subjects (77%) were studied. Nine subjects in whom baseline FEV1 was less than 75% predicted did not perform the exercise test. Technically unsatisfactory tests were obtained in five subjects. Twenty six (57%) subjects who reported wheeze and three controls (6%) had a positive exercise test, giving a sensitivity of 57% (26 of 46) and specificity of 94% (47 of 50). Estimates of the repeatability of the exercise test showed a mean difference in percentage fall in FEV1 for patients with asthma of 3.08% (95% limits of agreement -7.76% to 13.92%). CONCLUSIONS: Despite attempts to maximise the stimulus to bronchoconstriction in this exercise challenge test, its sensitivity and specificity were not improved in comparison with previous epidemiological studies of the prevalence of asthma.
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