The optimal serum concentration of theophylline for the management of acute airways obstruction was evaluated by comparing the response to target concentrations at the extremes of the usual therapeutic range. 174 patients requiring intravenous theophylline were randomly assigned to a target concentration of 10 or 20 mg/L. Control of theophylline dosage using measured theophylline concentrations and evaluation of efficacy and toxicity was performed under double-blind conditions. 87 patients (50%) required hospital admission. Of these, 54 patients (62%) were followed throughout their hospital admission and reviewed at an outpatient clinic approximately 1 week after discharge. The duration of hospital stay, and rate and extent of improvement in peak expiratory flow rate were not different between the groups. There was significantly more toxicity in the 20 mg/L group. The initial target concentration for theophylline in the management of acute airway obstruction should be 10 mg/L under circumstances where concentration is used to control theophylline dosages.