Current guidelines specify the goals of asthma treatment in children and propose a stepwise approach to achieve them. The authors sought to determine whether these goals were attained in children of different age groups in the community and to assess treatment in those with unsatisfactory asthma control. A cross-sectional postal questionnaire survey was performed in 1998 in all members of the major Swiss parents organisation for childhood asthma. With a response rate of 85%, data from 572 Swiss-German children aged 4-16 yrs with wheeze were analysed. Asthma control was excellent in 18% of the children, satisfactory (only episodic symptoms) in 33%, and unsatisfactory in 49% with disturbed sleep, restricted activities and school absences. When stratified by age, excellent or satisfactory control was attained by 66% of children aged 13-16 yrs, but only by 56%, 44%, and 38% of those aged 10-12, 7-9 and 4-6 yrs, respectively. Although the majority were followed-up by a doctor (95%) and were receiving beta2-agonists (82%) and inhaled corticosteroids (68%), intensity and duration of treatment were not sufficiently matched to asthma severity. In virtually all children there was scope to improve medical treatment, preventive measures and knowledge of asthma management, with very few if any children with therapy-resistant asthma. Even in children with poor asthma control, 89% of parents were satisfied with the results of treatment. The goals of asthma treatment were attained in one-half of the children, particularly in younger age groups. Although inhaler use was common, detailed assessment showed evidence for undertreatment, especially in the youngest age group, and insufficient adherence to preventive measures. Parental expectations of asthma control, which were lower than those outlined in guidelines, might be an important but underestimated factor in paediatric asthma management.