The frequency of hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression in asthmatics taking high dose (greater than 1000 micrograms daily) inhaled corticosteroids is unknown. HPA function was studied in 78 adult asthmatics taking long-term inhaled corticosteroids (median dose 1600 micrograms, range 1200-2650 micrograms daily). All patients except one were using metered dose aerosols; 15 were using large volume spacer devices. Median duration of high dose therapy was 13 months (range 1-54). Sixty-nine patients were taking beclomethasone dipropionate (1500 micrograms, n = 36; 2000 micrograms, n = 26, greater than 2000 micrograms, n = 7) and nine budesonide (1200 micrograms, n = 2; 1600 micrograms, n = 6; 1800 micrograms, n = 1). Four patients, all of whom were taking greater than 2000 micrograms beclomethasone dipropionate, were taking 200-400 micrograms of their total dose intranasally. Twenty-six patients had discontinued long term systemic corticosteroid treatment (at least 5 mg prednisolone daily, or equivalent, for a minimum of 6 months) between 7 months and 22 years prior to assessment. All patients had measurements of 9 am serum cortisol and 24-h urine free cortisol excretion and a short tetracosactrin test. Subnormal results were: 9 am cortisol less than 190 nmol l-1; rise in serum cortisol in response to tetracosactrin less than 200 nmol l-1 and/or achieved cortisol less than 500 nmol l-1; urine free cortisol less than 80 nmol 24 h-1. Hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal suppression was defined as subnormal results in at least two of the three tests. Tests were performed at least 2 weeks after completion of any short course prednisolone treatments. Suppression was found in 16 (20.5%) patients (1500 micrograms, n = 6; 1600 micrograms, n = 1; 2000 micrograms, n = 7; 2400 micrograms, n = 2). Risk factors identified for this suppression were: (a) previous requirement for long-term systemic corticosteroids (10/26, chi 2 = 6.1, P less than 0.02); and (b) increasing duration of high dose inhaled therapy (median 28.5 months in suppressed vs. 12 months in normal, P less than 0.05). No clear relationship was identified between HPA function and dose, even when corrected for body surface area and there was no relationship between suppression and number of short courses of prednisolone in the preceding 12 months. Screening tests of HPA function should be performed in all asthmatics taking greater than or equal to 1500 micrograms inhaled corticosteroid daily. Unless function has been shown to be normal, all patients taking these doses should carry steroid cards.