To investigate whether the language of dyspnea provides relevant clinical information in addition to that provided by ratings of overall dyspnea intensity when assessing subjective response to therapy, we conducted a prospective study in a cohort of 25 patients with acute asthma presenting to the emergency department of a tertiary care hospital. Patients received nebulized albuterol treatments every 20 min with a maximum of three doses. At presentation and after each treatment, patients completed spirometry, rated overall dyspnea intensity on a modified Borg scale, and selected phrases that described qualities of breathlessness from a 15-item questionnaire. Paired Student's t tests revealed significant improvements in FEV1 (from 1.39 +/- 0.66 L to 1.80 +/- 0.76 L, p < 0. 001) and reductions in dyspnea intensity (from 5.12 +/- 2.08 to 2.82 +/- 1.59, p < 0.001) after the first albuterol treatment. Dyspnea intensity continued to decrease significantly in response to the second treatment, modified Borg rating 2.26 +/- 1.52, although there was no positive bronchodilator response. The results from Cochran Q tests revealed that the frequency of the experience of "chest tightness" decreased significantly across the phases of treatment. However, the sensations of "work" or "breathing effort" persisted at the same time that the FEV1 revealed ongoing airways obstruction. We conclude that attention to the language of dyspnea would alert health care providers to residual air flow obstruction despite decreases in overall dyspnea intensity.