Can peak expiratory flow measurements estimate small airway function in asthmatic children?

Chest. 2001 Aug;120(2):482-8. doi: 10.1378/chest.120.2.482.


Background: Asthma is characterized in part by small airways dysfunction. Peak expiratory flow (PEF) measurement has been suggested by all international guidelines as an important tool in asthma management. The correlation between PEF and FEV(1) but not with forced expired flow at 50% of vital capacity (FEF(50)) is well-established.

Study objective: To determine the value of PEF measurement as a predictor of small airways status as expressed by FEF(50).

Design: Analysis of the association between PEF and FEF(50) in single and multiple determinations.

Patients: One hundred eleven asthmatic children (mean age, 11.8 years), grouped in the following way according to FEV(1) values: within normal range (n = 46); mildly reduced FEV(1) (n = 44); and moderately/severely reduced FEV(1) (n = 21).

Results: Overall, FEF(50) and PEF were significantly correlated (r = 0.49; p < 0.0001). However, in 41.6% of the patients, the actual FEF(50) differed by > 20% from the calculated FEF(50). PEF has a high specificity (82.4%) but a poor sensitivity (51.7%) to detect FEF(50) status. PEF was better able to reflect abnormal FEF(50) in the patients with more severe asthma and to reflect normal FEF(50) values in the healthier patients. In patients with multiple measurements (n = 40), the correlation between FEF(50) and PEF was significantly better than that derived from a single determination (multiple measurements r = 0.77; single measurement, r = 0.49).

Conclusions: Although PEF is an important tool in the management of asthmatic patients, it does not yield a complete picture because it is not sensitive in detecting small airways function. It is best used at home along with regular spirometry measurements at the clinic. PEF may serve as a better index of changes in small airways function once an individual regression is determined.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Asthma / diagnosis
  • Asthma / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Forced Expiratory Flow Rates
  • Humans
  • Peak Expiratory Flow Rate*
  • Pulmonary Alveoli / physiopathology
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Vital Capacity