To test the hypothesis that patients perceive the same quality of dyspnea during mild bronchoconstriction and external resistive loads, we studied subjects with asthma under two conditions: (1) during methacholine bronchoprovocation to mimic the bronchospasm of mild asthma and (2) while breathing on a circuit to which was added a range of external resistors to mimic the mechanical load of mild asthma. During each of these stimuli, respiratory variables, overall dyspnea intensity on a modified Borg scale, and the qualitative descriptors of breathlessness from a 19-item questionnaire were assessed. The "chest tightness" and "constriction" responses were significantly more frequent in the methacholine trials as compared with the external load trials (p < 0.0001). The "chest tightness" or "constriction" response was chosen during 92% of the 26 trials of methacholine bronchoconstriction compared with 3% of the 72 trials of breathing against the external resistors. Changes in functional residual capacity were not significantly different between the two conditions. We conclude that in mild asthma, the sensation of chest tightness is distinct from the sensation of work and effort and is not attributable to the mechanical load imposed on the respiratory system.