Spirometric criteria for airway obstruction: Use percentage of FEV1/FVC ratio below the fifth percentile, not < 70%

Chest. 2007 Feb;131(2):349-55. doi: 10.1378/chest.06-1349.


Background: Current authoritative spirometry guidelines use conflicting percentage of FEV1/FVC ratios (FEV1/FVC%) to define airway obstruction. The American Thoracic Society/European Respiratory Society Task Force characterizes obstruction as a FEV1/FVC% below the statistically defined fifth percentile of normal. However, many recent publications continue to use the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) primary criterion that defines obstruction as a FEV1/FVC% < 70%. Data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES-III) should identify and quantify differences, help resolve this conflict, and reduce inappropriate medical and public health decisions resulting from misidentification.

Methods: Using these two guidelines, individual values of FEV1/FVC% were compared by decades in 5,906 healthy never-smoking adults and 3,497 current-smokers of black (African American), Hispanic (Latin), or white ethnicities aged 20.0 to 79.9 years.

Results: In the never-smoking population, the lower limits of normal used in other reference equations fit reasonably well the NHANES-III statistically defined fifth percentile guidelines. But nearly one half of young adults with FEV1/FVC% below the NHANES-III fifth percentile of normal were misidentified as normal because their FEV1/FVC% was > 70% (abnormals misidentified as normal). Approximately one fifth of older adults with observed FEV1/FVC% above the NHANES-III fifth percentile had FEV1/FVC% ratios < 70% (normals misidentified as abnormal).

Conclusions: The GOLD guidelines misidentify nearly one half of abnormal younger adults as normal and misidentify approximately one fifth of normal older adults as abnormal.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Black or African American
  • Female
  • Forced Expiratory Volume / physiology
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Humans
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / diagnosis*
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / ethnology
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutrition Surveys
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Smoking / physiopathology*
  • Spirometry*
  • United States
  • Vital Capacity / physiology
  • White People