This study aimed to determine whether there is a persistent or different type of airway inflammation in patients with an incomplete reversibility of airflow obstruction (IRAO) despite optimal treatment and if so, whether it is associated with an accelerated decline of pulmonary function. Fifteen asthmatic patients with IRAO, and 23 with complete reversibility of airflow obstruction (CRAO) had a spirometry and an induced-sputum (IS) analysis. Past FEV1 values were recorded over 2-12 years during periods of stable asthma. Medians (range) for IS cell differentials were: lymphocytes, 0(0-3)/1(0-2)%; neutrophils, 56(13-88)/38(3-84)% and eosinophils, 2.0(0-82)/4.0(0-68)%, (all P>0.05). Among non-smoking patients, those with IRAO had more neutrophils in IS than those with CRAO (P=0.019). Mean (+/-SEM) yearly fall in FEV1 in IRAO or CRAO patients was 54+/-21/84+/-16 ml/year (P>0.05, predicted age-related decline < or = 26 ml/year, P=0.0008). In the whole group of asthmatic patients, decline of FEV1/year was inversely correlated with the % neutrophils in sputum (r(s)=-0.436, P=0.008) and, in IRAO patients, with the duration of asthma (r(s)=-0.559, P=0.037). In conclusion, persistent airway inflammation and increased decline in pulmonary function can be observed in both asthmatic patients with IRAO/CRAO and are of similar magnitude. Non-smoking patients with IRAO had more neutrophils in IS than CRAO.