The epidemiology of wheeze in children, when assessed by questionnaires, is dependent on parents' understanding of the term "wheeze". In a questionnaire survey of a random population sample of 4,236 children aged 6-10 yrs, parents' definition of wheeze was assessed. Predictors of a correct definition were determined and the potential impact of incorrect answers on prevalence estimates from the survey was assessed. Current wheeze was reported by 13.2% of children. Overall, 83.5% of parents correctly identified "whistling or squeaking" as the definition of wheeze; the proportion was higher for parents reporting wheezy children (90.4%). Frequent attacks of reported wheeze (adjusted odds ratio (OR) 3.0), maternal history of asthma (OR 1.5) and maternal education (OR 1.5) were significantly associated with a correct answer, while the converse was found for South Asian ethnicity (OR 0.6), first language not English (OR 0.6) and living in a deprived neighbourhood (OR 0.6). In summary, the present study showed that misunderstanding could lead to an important bias in assessing the prevalence of wheeze, resulting in an underestimation in children from South Asian and deprived family backgrounds. Prevalence estimates for the most severe categories of wheeze might be less affected by this bias and questionnaire surveys on wheeze should incorporate measures of parents' understanding of the term wheeze.