Although assessment of asthma control is important to guide treatment, it is difficult since the temporal pattern and risk of exacerbations are often unpredictable. In this Review, we summarise the classic methods to assess control with unidimensional and multidimensional approaches. Next, we show how ideas from the science of complexity can explain the seemingly unpredictable nature of bronchial asthma and emphysema, with implications for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. We show that fluctuation analysis, a method used in statistical physics, can be used to gain insight into asthma as a dynamic disease of the respiratory system, viewed as a set of interacting subsystems (eg, inflammatory, immunological, and mechanical). The basis of the fluctuation analysis methods is the quantification of the long-term temporal history of lung function parameters. We summarise how this analysis can be used to assess the risk of future asthma episodes, with implications for asthma severity and control both in children and adults.