Excessive airway narrowing is a cardinal feature of asthma, and results in closure of airways. Therefore, asthmatic patients in whom airway closure occurs relatively early during expiration might be prone to severe asthma attacks. To test this hypothesis, we compared closing volume (CV) and closing capacity (CC) in a group of asthmatic patients with recurrent exacerbations (more than two exacerbations in the previous year; difficult-to-control asthma), consisting of 11 males and two females, aged 20 to 51 yr, with those in a group of equally severely asthmatic controls without recurrent exacerbations (stable asthma) consisting of 13 males and two females aged 18 to 52 yr. Both groups used equivalent doses of inhaled corticosteroids and were matched for sex, age, atopy, postbronchodilator FEV(1), and provocative concentration of methacholine causing a 20% decrease in FEV(1). They were studied during a clinically stable period of their disease. The patients inhaled 400 microg salbutamol via a spacer device, after which TLC and RV were measured by multibreath helium equilibration, together with the slope of Phase 3 (dN(2)), CV, and CC, by single-breath nitrogen washout. CV and CC were expressed as ratios of VC and TLC, respectively, and all data are presented as % predicted (mean +/- SEM). There was no difference in TLC in patients with difficult-to-control asthma and those with stable asthma (106.7 +/- 4.0% predicted versus 101.7 +/- 4.3% predicted, p = 0.40), RV (113.1 +/- 7.8% predicted versus 100.9 +/- 7.1% predicted, p = 0.26), or dN(2) (142.7 +/- 16.3% predicted versus 116.0 +/- 20.2% predicted, p = 0.23). In contrast, CV and CC were increased in the patients with difficult-to-control asthma as compared with the group with stable asthma (CV: 159.5 +/- 26.8% predicted versus 98.8 +/- 12.5% predicted, p = 0.024; CC: 114.0 +/- 6.4% predicted versus 99.9 +/- 3. 6% predicted, p = 0.030). These findings show that asthmatic individuals with recurrent exacerbations have increased CV and CC as compared with equally severely asthmatic but stable controls, even after bronchodilation during well-controlled episodes. The findings imply that airway closure at relatively high lung volumes under clinically stable conditions might be a risk factor for severe exacerbations in asthmatic patients.