In the present population-based study, spirometric lung function was assessed in symptomatic schoolchildren with and without asthma as compared to an asymptomatic reference group. The primary aim was to investigate if impaired lung function could be demonstrated in symptomatic schoolchildren, even in the absence of diagnosed asthma. Spirometry [forced vital capacity (FVC), forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1), 50% of forced expiratory flow (FEF 50%) and 75% of forced expiratory flow (FEF 75%)] and anthropometric measures (standing height, weight, skin fold thickness, and length and circumference of the upper arm) were obtained from 1369 8-10-year-old children (81.5% of the eligible population) during the school year 1985-86. In 1321 of those subjects (96.5% of those examined), a self-administered questionnaire was completed. Thirty-five children belonging to ethnic minorities were excluded, thus 1286 subjects were included for further analysis. Point prevalences concerning asthma and respiratory symptoms (wheeze, cough and shortness of breath) were obtained. Thirty-seven children reported asthma and one or more asthma-like symptoms (symptomatic asthmatics), whereas 40 children denied having asthma, although claiming one or more asthma-like symptoms (symptomatic non-asthmatics). In both symptomatic groups, FEF 50% and FEF 75% were reduced relative to the reference group, the deficit being larger in the symptomatic asthmatics. FEF 75% was found to be more reduced than FEF 50%. FEV1 and FVC did not differ significantly between groups. It is concluded that only half of the schoolchildren with respiratory symptoms usually associated with the presence of asthma actually reported having this disease. These results demonstrate the presence of reduced lung function in symptomatic, reportedly non-asthmatic, children, suggesting clinically important underdiagnosis of asthma. More severe impairment of lung function was found in known asthmatics, also implying some degree of undertreatment.