Thorax 65:1039-1044 doi:10.1136/thx.2009.124925
  • Asthma
  • Original article

Exhaled nitric oxide thresholds associated with a sputum eosinophil count ≥3% in a cohort of unselected patients with asthma

Editor's Choice
  1. Renaud Louis1
  1. 1Department of Pulmonary Medicine, CHU Sart-Tilman, Liege, I3 GIGA Research Group, University of Liege, Belgium
  2. 2Medical Informatics and Biostatistics, University of Liege, Belgium
  3. 3Division of Pulmonary Medicine, Erasme Hospital University of Brussels, Belgium
  1. Correspondence to Florence N Schleich, Department of Pulmonary Medicine, CHU Sart-Tilman, Liege, I3 GIGA Research Group, University of Liege, Belgium; fschleich{at}
  1. Contributors FNS: patient recruitment, writing and analysis; LS: statistical analysis; JS: sputum induction, cytospin reading; MM: sputum induction; VQ: patient recruitement; AM: writing; RL: patient recruitment, writing and analysis.

  • Received 5 August 2009
  • Accepted 4 May 2010
  • Published Online First 29 July 2010


Background It has been claimed that exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO) could be regarded as a surrogate marker for sputum eosinophil count in patients with asthma. However, the FeNO threshold value that identifies a sputum eosinophil count ≥3% in an unselected population of patients with asthma has been poorly studied.

Methods This retrospective study was conducted in 295 patients with asthma aged 15–84 years recruited from the asthma clinic of University Hospital of Liege. Receiver-operating characteristic (ROC) curve and logistic regression analysis were used to assess the relationship between sputum eosinophil count and FeNO, taking into account covariates such as inhaled corticosteroids (ICS), smoking, atopy, age and sex.

Results Derived from the ROC curve, FeNO ≥41 ppb gave 65% sensitivity and 79% specificity (AUC=0.777, p=0.0001) for identifying a sputum eosinophil count ≥3%. Using logistic regression analysis, a threshold of 42 ppb was found to discriminate between eosinophilic and non-eosinophilic asthma (p<0.0001). Patients receiving high doses of ICS (≥1000 μg beclometasone) had a significantly lower FeNO threshold (27 ppb) than the rest of the group (48 ppb, p<0.05). Atopy also significantly altered the threshold (49 ppb for atopic vs 30 ppb for non-atopic patients, p<0.05) and there was a trend for a lower threshold in smokers (27 ppb) compared with non-smokers (46 ppb, p=0.066). Age and sex did not affect the relationship between FeNO and sputum eosinophilia. When combining all variables into the logistic model, FeNO (p<0.0001), high-dose ICS (p<0.05) and smoking (p<0.05) were independent predictors of sputum eosinophilia, while there was a trend for atopy (p=0.086).

Conclusion FeNO is able to identify a sputum eosinophil count ≥3% with reasonable accuracy and thresholds which vary according to dose of ICS, smoking and atopy.


  • Linked articles 132985.

  • Funding Supported by Interuniversity Attraction Poles (IAP) Project P6/35 and by unrestricted research grants from GSK, Astra-Zeneca and Novartis.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval This study was conducted with the approval of the ethics committee of CHU Liege.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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