Our aim was to evaluate long-term effects of exogenous surfactant therapy on pulmonary functional outcome in children born very preterm. We examined 40 children aged 7-12 years who were born before 30 weeks of gestation with an immature surfactant system, and were randomized to one of three treatment groups: human surfactant given at birth (prophylactic), human surfactant given after development of neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (rescue), and placebo (air) treatment. Spirometric parameters of preterm born children were compared with those of 20 children born at term. In addition, spirometric parameters were monitored twice daily for 4 weeks using a home spirometer. All spirometric parameters were significantly lower in the preterm groups than in the controls, except for the forced vital capacity (FVC) in the prophylactically treated group. Bronchial obstruction was found in 53% of the prophylactically treated group, in 36% of the rescue group, in 67% of the placebo group, and in 0% of the control group. Peak expiratory flow (PEF) and FVC values were higher in those children who received surfactant compared with the placebo group (P < 0.05). In 16 children (40%) born preterm, a beta2-agonist induced an increase in PEF > or = 15% at least three times during 2 weeks of home monitoring; eight children (20%) had abnormal diurnal PEF variation. Multiple regression analysis indicated that the independent variables associated with favorable outcomes in spirometric parameters were surfactant therapy (P = 0.012-0.045) and short intubation time after birth (P = 0.0009-0.0044). Bronchial obstruction, responsiveness to a beta2-agonist, and high diurnal PEF variation are common in children born before 30 gestational weeks. Surfactant supplementation reducing the need for mechanical ventilation or supplementary oxygen after birth may decrease the severity of immaturity related bronchial obstruction in childhood.