In the last few years there has been a growing interest in lung clearance index (LCI), a measure of lung physiology derived from multiple breath washout tests. This resurgence of interest was initially driven by the recognition that such assessments were capable of detecting early airways disease in children, and are more sensitive and easier to perform in this population than conventional lung function tests [Aurora P, Kozlowska W, Stocks J. Gas mixing efficiency from birth to adulthood measured by multiple-breath washout. Respir Physiol Neurobiol, 2005;148(1-2):125-39]. With an appreciation of the importance of earlier identification of airways dysfunction, and prevention of irreversible structural airway changes, methods of following airways disease in these "silent years" are especially important. LCI has now been reported in studies involving all age groups, from infants to adults [Lum S, Gustafsson P, Ljungberg H, Hulskamp G, Bush A, Carr SB, et al. Early detection of cystic fibrosis lung disease: multiple-breath washout versus raised volume tests. Thorax, 2007;62(4):341-7; Horsley AR, Gustafsson PM, Macleod K, Saunders CJ, Greening AP, Porteous D, et al. Lung clearance index is a sensitive, repeatable and practical measure of airways disease in adults with cystic fibrosis. Thorax, 2008;63:135-40], and has a narrow range of normal over this wide age range, making it especially suitable for long-term follow-up studies. In cystic fibrosis (CF) particularly, there is a pressing need for sensitive and repeatable clinical endpoints for therapeutic interventions [Rosenfeld M. An overview of endpoints for cystic fibrosis clinical trials: one size does not fit all. Proc Am Thorac Soc, 2007;4(4):299-301], and LCI has been proposed as an outcome measure in future CF gene therapy studies [Davies JC, Cunningham S, Alton EW, Innes JA. Lung clearance index in CF: a sensitive marker of lung disease severity. Thorax, 2008;63(2):96-7]. This review will consider how LCI is derived, how it differs from conventional lung function testing, and its applications and limitations.