We investigated whether early lung function abnormalities in prematurely born children with a history of chronic lung disease improve in late childhood and adolescence. We performed a prospective, longitudinal evaluations of pulmonary function over an 8 year period. In seventeen patients from the age (mean +/- SD) of 8.2 +/- 1.2 years to the age of 15.1 +/- 1.6 years. They had been born at 29.1 +/- 1.9 weeks of gestation, with a birthweight of 1120 +/- 190 g, and they had received supplemental oxygen, with or without mechanical ventilation, for 40.4 +/- 23.8 days during the neonatal period. They all had radiographic evidence of chronic lung disease at 4 weeks of age. Annual measurements of lung volumes using the helium dilution technique, and of airway function with spirometry and maximal expiratory flow-volume curves over a 5 to 8 year period, were obtained. The results indicated that total lung capacity (TLC) and vital capacity (VC) were within the predicted normal range in all patients and increased over time. In contrast, the initially abnormal residual volume (RV) and RV/TLC ratio decreased over time, suggesting gradual resolution of air-trapping. The peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR), forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1), and the ratio FEV1/FVC remained at or above the predicted normal range in all patients. FEF25-75, FEF50, and FEF75 were within normal limits in eight patients and abnormally low (more than 2 SD below the predicted normal value) in the remaining nine patients, indicating small airway obstruction. Eight of the nine patients with lower airway obstruction showed significant response to inhaled bronchodilator, and four responded to a histamine challenge. None of the eight patients with normal airway function responded to histamine, but four responded to bronchodilators. The perinatal history, family history of asthma, and exposure to smoking were similar in patients with and without airway obstruction. The height and weight were and remained within the normal range. We conclude that gradual normalization of air-trapping continues well into adolescence in virtually all patients with a history of prematurity and chronic lung disease. in contrast, airflow obstruction may persist but does not get worse later in life. Although chronic airflow obstruction probably is the consequence of injury to the small airways during the neonatal period, it is present in only some of the children, and it does not appear to be directly related to the perinatal history. Finally, there is evidence that airway hyperresponsiveness may be a contributing factor to the development and/or persistence of airflow obstruction in chronic lung disease of prematurity.