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OBJECTIVES: To study factors affecting the occurrence of exercise induced bronchospasm (EIB) in elite runners. METHODS: Fifty eight elite runners, 79% of them belonging to Finnish national teams, volunteered. The athletes answered a questionnaire on respiratory symptoms. Skin prick tests were used to investigate atopy, and spirometry to examine lung function at rest and after an exercise challenge test (ECT) at subzero temperature in the winter and after a similar ECT in the summer at the end of the birch pollen season. RESULTS: Definitive EIB (a post- exercise reduction of 10% or more in forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) was observed in five (9%) of the 58 runners. A subgroup consisting of 19 non-atopic symptom-free runners with no family history of asthma was used to establish a normal range for post-exercise reduction in FEV1. When this group's mean exercise induced change in FEV1 minus 2 SDs (a reduction of 6.5% or more in FEV1) was taken as the lower limit of the reference range, 15 (26%) of the runners had probable EIB in either the winter or the pollen season. The occurrence of probable EIB depended on atopy (odds ratio increased with number of positive skin prick test reactions, p < 0.05). Nine (22%) of the 41 runners, challenged in both the winter and the pollen season, had probable EIB only in the winter, and three (7%) had it only in the pollen season. Only one runner (2%) had EIB in both tests. CONCLUSIONS: Mild EIB is common in Finnish elite runners and is strongly associated with atopy. Seasonal variability affects the occurrence of EIB, and thus exercise testing should be performed in both cold winter air and the pollen season to detect EIB in elite runners.