Summary Background The correct diagnosis of asthma in young children is often hard to achieve, resulting in undertreatment of asthmatic children and overtreatment in transient wheezers. Objectives To develop a new diagnostic tool that better discriminates between asthma and transient wheezing and that leads to a more accurate diagnosis and hence less undertreatment and overtreatment. A first stage in the development of such a tool is the ability to discriminate between asthmatic children and healthy controls. The integrative analysis of large numbers of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in exhaled breath has the potential to discriminate between various inflammatory conditions of the respiratory tract. Methods Breath samples were obtained and analysed for VOC by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry from asthmatic children (n=63) and healthy controls (n=57). A total of 945 determined compounds were subjected to discriminant analysis to find those that could discriminate diseased from healthy children. A set of samples from both asthmatic and healthy children was selected to construct a model that was subsequently used to predict the asthma or the healthy status of a test group. In this way, the predictive value of the model could be tested. Measurements and main results The discriminant analyses demonstrated that asthma and healthy groups are distinct from one another. A total of eight components discriminated between asthmatic and healthy children with a 92% correct classification, achieving a sensitivity of 89% and a specificity of 95%. Conclusion The results show that a limited number of VOC in exhaled air can well be used to distinguish children with asthma from healthy children.