Five per cent of asthmatics remain symptomatic despite high-dose treatment. The aim of the study was to investigate how often such difficult-to-treat asthma is due to intractable asthma, misdiagnosis, non-adherence with therapy, or psychiatric problems. Difficult asthma was defined as persistence of symptoms despite treatment at step 4 of British guidelines or requirement for long-term oral glucocorticoids (step 5). One-hundred patients with a respiratory physician diagnosis of asthma were investigated in a single tertiary respiratory unit in an open and descriptive study. Twelve of the patients studied did not have asthma and a further seven had additional diagnoses. Of the remainder, 55 had an asthma diagnosis confirmed by demonstration of reversible airflow narrowing or peak flow variability, whilst 20 did not. Non-compliance with prednisolone therapy was more frequent in the 55 with confirmed asthma (nine of 18 prescribed oral prednisolone at a dose of > or = 15 mg x day(-1)) and was not detected in the "unconfirmed asthma" group. There were no other significant differences between these groups. A major psychiatric component was detected in 10 patients. Systematic evaluation of difficult asthma is useful as it can identify alternative or additional diagnoses, psychiatric illness or nonconcordance with therapy in a substantial proportion of cases (32% in the present series).