Background: The combination of airway hyper-responsiveness, eosinophilic airway inflammation, and lung function impairment is considered as a hallmark of bronchial asthma. Since airway function might change with time in chronic asthma, the association between parameters which are characteristic of asthma could be different in subjects with different durations of the disease.
Objective: We assessed whether in patients with asthma the relationship between airway hyperresponsiveness, non-invasive markers of airway inflammation, and baseline lung function depended on the duration of the disease.
Methods: Sixty-six non-smoking patients with mild to moderate allergic asthma without corticosteroids were assigned to two groups, according to a duration of the disease (time interval since doctor's diagnosis) of either < or = 16 years (median 8 years; mean FEV1, 92.6% pred.; n = 34) or > 16 year (median 25 years; mean FEV1, 87.9% pred.; n = 32).
Results: Groups did not differ statistically in PC20FEV1 of methacholine, sputum composition, levels of exhaled nitric oxide (NO), lung function parameters, or history of treatment. There were significant correlations between PC20FEV1, eosinophils and NO in patients with a duration of the disease < or = 16 year, but no relation to lung function. In contrast, patients with a duration > 16 year showed a correlation between PC20FEV1 of methacholine and lung function but not eosinophils or NO. In both groups, eosinophils and NO were associated with each other. These results were corroborated by the statistical procedure of factor analysis that revealed 'inflammation' and 'lung function' as major entities and found 'responsiveness' to be associated with only one of them in each group.
Conclusion: Our data demonstrate that with a shorter duration of the asthmatic disease airway hyper-responsiveness is associated with airway inflammation, whereas with a longer duration it is associated with impaired lung function, suggesting that in chronic asthma ongoing alterations become the primary determinant of functional characteristics.