We investigated acinar airway involvement in 20 patients with stable asthma, using the phase III slope analysis of the multiple breath N2 washout previously applied in a group of patients with COPD (Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med. 1998;157:1573-1577). This technique quantifies severity of conductive and acinar components of ventilation maldistribution separately, through indices S(cond) and S(acin), which increase when respective ventilation inhomogeneities increase. We also investigated the effect of salbutamol inhalation on S(cond) and S(acin) in patients with asthma and compared it with that obtained in patients with COPD. Baseline measurements in the patients with asthma show that (1) acinar ventilation inhomogeneity was indeed abnormal in patients with asthma (S(acin) = 0.195 +/- 0.026 L-1) despite the normal diffusing capacity in this group; S(acin) values were intermediate between those obtained in unaffected individuals and patients with COPD, and that (2) conductive ventilation inhomogeneity was abnormal in the patients with asthma (S(cond) = 0.076 +/- 0.006 L-1) but similar to that obtained in the patients with COPD. Measurements after salbutamol inhalations showed significant changes in S(cond) and S(acin) only in the patients with asthma (p < 0.001). This study primarily demonstrated significant, but partially reversible, acinar airway impairment in patients with asthma, as compared with the more severe baseline acinar airway impairment in patients with COPD, which was not reversible after salbutamol inhalation.