We conducted a four-period cross-over randomized trial in which we found that patients with chronic airflow limitation demonstrated symptomatic improvement with both inhaled albuterol and oral theophylline. The response, however, was not uniform. We therefore tested the ability of acute change in forced expired volume in one second (FEV1) following inhaled beta agonist to predict long-term symptomatic response to albuterol and theophylline. We found that the reproducibility of acute change in FEV1 over three repetitions was poor (intraclass correlation 0.17). Furthermore, the mean improvement FEV1 following inhaled albuterol across the three repetitions did not relate closely to symptomatic response to either albuterol or theophylline. We conclude that acute response to inhaled beta agonist is not useful for identifying patients with chronic airflow limitation who are likely to benefit from bronchodilator treatment.