Fifty children with at least one hospital admission for acute lower airway obstruction in the first 2.5 years of life were assessed at 3 years of age to determine the relationship between atopy, bronchial responsiveness, and the pattern of their symptoms. Bronchial responsiveness was measured by assessing the effect of inhaled metacholine, using the change in transcutaneous oxygen tension (PtCO2) as an indirect measure of response. Symptom patterns were defined by the number of wheezing episodes associated with colds and the presence or absence of cough or wheeze unrelated to viral infections. Forty per cent of the children were found to be atopic by skin prick test or history. In contrast to the situation found in older children and adults, the non-atopic children had significantly greater bronchial responsiveness (lower mean concentration of methacholine causing a 20% fall in PtCO2, the PC20) than the atopic children and significantly more of them had an onset of respiratory symptoms in the first year of life. Cough and wheeze in the absence of colds was more frequently found in the atopic children as was the use of continuous medication. However, the number of reported acute episodes of wheeze associated with colds was the same in the two groups. The findings of the study suggest that in this hospital based group of children, acute wheeze associated with colds in the first three years of life is independent of the finding of atopy and that bronchial responsiveness in this age group may have a different pathogenesis from that in older subjects.