Testing airway responsiveness using inhaled methacholine or histamine

Respirology. 1997 Jun;2(2):97-105. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1843.1997.tb00061.x.


Airway responsiveness assessed using histamine and methacholine is safe, reproducible and relatively easily undertaken in adults and children. Results are similar for methacholine and histamine although methacholine is better tolerated. Responsiveness is increased in children and the elderly, and in women compared to men, possibly due to body size effects. Baseline lung function confounds the interpretation of airway responsiveness and may explain the effect of smoking in most studies. Results are most usefully expressed as the provocative dose producing a 20% fall in FEV1 (PD20FEV1) or the dose-response slope (DRS). When technical factors are controlled the reproducibility of the test is from one to two doubling doses. Measurements of airway responsiveness have been widely used in clinical and research practice. However, assessing their value in diagnosing asthma is limited by the lack of a gold standard for the definition of asthma. Using a cut-off value of 8 mg/mL or 8 mumol for PD20, the tests will discriminate asthmatic from non-asthmatic subjects (based on questionnaire definitions of asthma) with a sensitivity of around 60% and a specificity of around 90%. These properties of the test result in positive and negative predictive values of 86% and 69% when the prevalence of asthma is high (50%-as in the clinical setting) and 40% and 95% when the prevalence of asthma is low (10%, as in general population studies). In the usual clinical setting, assessing the significance of atypical or non-specific symptoms, the tests are of intermediate value in predicting the presence of asthma and less useful in excluding asthma. The additional benefit of testing airway responsiveness to measuring peak flows or to a trial of therapy has yet to be fully assessed. Testing of airway responsiveness may be of value in assessing occupational asthma, asthma severity and the effects of potential sensitizers or treatments. In research, tests of airway responsiveness are more useful for excluding cases of asthma. In population studies, they serve as an objective marker of abnormal airway function which may be genetically determined and, like allergy, are strongly associated with asthma. The predictive value of airway hyperresponsiveness for the development of airway disease is yet to be clearly established. In epidemiology the benefits of measuring airway responses must be weighed against the added inconvenience and cost that is incurred.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Asthma / diagnosis*
  • Bronchial Hyperreactivity / chemically induced
  • Bronchial Provocation Tests* / methods
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Histamine*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Methacholine Chloride*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Methacholine Chloride
  • Histamine