We assessed the relationship between very low birth weight (VLBW) (<or=1500 g) and the development of asthma, lung function and atopy. The study groups comprised 74 of all 86 (86%) VLBW and 64 of all 86 (74%) matched term children who were prospectively followed for 12 years. A questionnaire on asthmatic and allergic symptoms was completed and skin prick tests, spirometry and hypertonic saline provocation tests were performed at 12 years of age. Cytokine secretion was analysed in stimulated blood leukocyte cultures in 28 VLBW and 23 term children. A history of asthma was more frequent among the VLBW children, as compared with the term children at age 12 (22% vs. 9%, p = 0.046). Among the VLBW children, very preterm birth (gestational age: week 25 to 29) (RR 2.5, 95%CI 1.1-5.8), neonatal mechanical ventilation (RR 2.8, 95%CI 1.2-6.4) and neonatal oxygen supplementation (RR 4.3, 95%CI 1.3-14.0) were significantly associated with a history of asthma by the age of 12 years in univariate analyses. In multivariate logistic regression, neonatal oxygen supplementation >or= 9 days was the only remaining significant risk factor for a history of asthma (adjusted OR 6.7, 95%CI 1.0-44). The VLBW children who required mechanical ventilation during the neonatal period were more likely to have bronchial hyperresponsiveness than those not requiring mechanical ventilation (60% vs. 28%, p = 0.050). The spirometric values were similar among the VLBW and the term children at 12 years. Very low birth weight was not significantly related to allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, eczema or positive skin prick tests. Furthermore, the levels of IL-4, IL-5 and IFN-gamma in stimulated cell cultures were similar in the VLBW and the term children. A history of asthma by 12 years of age was twice as common among the VLBW as the term children, and neonatal oxygen supplementation seemed to be associated with the increased risk. Furthermore, mechanical ventilation during the neonatal period was associated with bronchial hyperresponsiveness at age 12. Very low birth weight per se was not, however, related to atopy.