It has been postulated that hypertonic saline (HS) might impair the antimicrobial effects of defensins within the airways. Alternative non-ionic osmotic agents such as mannitol may thus be preferable to HS in promoting bronchial mucus clearance (BMC) in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). This study reports the effect of inhalation of another osmotic agent, dry powder Mannitol (300 mg), compared with its control (empty capsules plus matched voluntary cough) and a 6% solution of HS on BMC in 12 patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). Mucus clearance was measured using a radioaerosol/gamma camera technique. Post-intervention clearance was measured for 60 min, followed by cough clearance for 30 min. Neither mannitol nor HS improved BMC during the actual intervention period compared with their respective controls. However during the post-intervention measurement there was a significant improvement in BMC for both the mannitol (8.7+/-3.3% versus 2.8+/-0.7%) and HS (10.0+/-2.3% versus 3.5+/-0.8%). There was also a significant improvement in cough clearance with the Mannitol (9.7+/-2.4%) compared with its control (2.5+/-0.8%). Despite premedication with a bronchodilator, a small fall in forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) was seen immediately after administration of both the mannitol (7.3+/-2.5%) and HS (5.8+/-1.2%). Values of FEV1 returned to baseline by the end of the study. Inhaled mannitol is a potential mucoactive agent in cystic fibrosis patients. Further studies are required to establish the optimal dose and the long-term effectiveness of mannitol.