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Pulmonary function testing in asthma

Charles G Irvin, PhD, FERS
Section Editor
Peter J Barnes, DM, DSc, FRCP, FRS
Deputy Editor
Helen Hollingsworth, MD


The "classic" signs and symptoms of asthma are intermittent dyspnea, cough, and wheezing. While typical of asthma, these symptoms are nonspecific, making it difficult to distinguish asthma from other respiratory diseases. The definitive diagnosis of asthma requires the history or presence of respiratory symptoms consistent with asthma, combined with the demonstration of variable expiratory airflow obstruction [1,2].

The use of pulmonary function testing in the diagnosis of asthma will be reviewed here. The diagnosis of asthma and the performance and interpretation of pulmonary function tests are discussed separately. (See "Diagnosis of asthma in adolescents and adults" and "Overview of pulmonary function testing in adults" and "Office spirometry".)


The diagnosis of asthma is based upon a compatible clinical history and characteristic findings from a series of pulmonary function tests (PFTs) [1-3]. An approach to the use of PFTs in the diagnosis of asthma is provided in the algorithm (algorithm 1). The clinical features and diagnosis of asthma are discussed separately. (See "Diagnosis of asthma in adolescents and adults", section on 'Clinical features'.)

The specific PFTs are selected to identify the characteristic features of asthma, which include [1,2]:

Variable airflow limitation, which can be either circadian or episodic in nature

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Oct 11, 2016.
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