The response to inhaled methacholine is increased in patients with chronic airflow obstruction, but it is not known whether this is due to true hyperresponsiveness or is a result of the airflow obstruction. In asthmatics the response to methacholine correlates with the bronchoconstriction produced by hyperventilation of cold dry air. We studied 27 patients with a history of smoking and chronic bronchitis with a range of severity of airflow obstruction. Bronchial responses to methacholine (expressed as the provocation concentration causing a fall in FEV1 of 20%-PC20) and isocapnic hyperventilation of cold dry air were measured. In 19 patients the PC20 was less than 8 mg/ml (that is, in the asthmatic range) but only three developed bronchoconstriction in response to hyperventilation. There was a linear correlation between the log PC20 and the FEV1 (r = 0.86, p less than 0.001). The results suggest that in patients with chronic airflow obstruction the response to methacholine is determined by the degree of airflow obstruction, and cannot be used in the diagnosis of asthma in the absence of additional information.