To determine whether asthma alone can cause irreversible airflow obstruction 42 men and 47 women with chronic asthma (mean duration 22 (SD 13) years) without evidence of other disease likely to cause irreversible airflow obstruction were treated with theophylline orally and a beta agonist both orally and by inhalation for four weeks. After two weeks of treatment the FEV1 was less than 85% of the predicted normal value (%P) in 48 patients and these individuals then received prednisolone 0.6 mg/kg/day for two weeks. Duration and severity of asthma and smoking history were quantified by questionnaire; 38 patients were current smokers or ex-smokers. FEV1 was measured at 0, 2, and 4 weeks. The mean difference between the best FEV1 during the study and the predicted normal value was 0.29 l (p less than 0.001); FEV1 %P decreased with age (r = -0.30, p less than 0.01) and with the duration (r = -0.47, p less than 0.001) and severity (r = -0.55, p less than 0.001) of asthma. Similar findings were noted when the results for non-smokers and those whose asthma started in adult life were analysed separately. We conclude that asthma alone can cause irreversible airflow obstruction and that the degree of obstruction is a function of the duration and severity of previous asthma. The results suggest the possibility that irreversible airflow obstruction in asthma may be preventable by minimising the degree of persistent asthma.
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