Exacerbations of asthma are likely to be due to an increase in airway inflammation. We have studied noninvasive markers of airway inflammation in asthma exacerbations induced by reducing the dose of inhaled corticosteroids. Following a 2-wk run-in period, mild exacerbations were induced in subjects with stable asthma controlled with medium- to high-dose inhaled corticosteroids (beclomethasone dipropionate >/= 800 microg or equivalent daily) by switching them to budesonide 200 microg daily given from a dry-powder inhaler (Turbohaler). Fifteen subjects were enrolled and were seen twice weekly for 8 wk after steroid reduction. At each visit, exhaled nitric oxide (NO), and methacholine airway responsiveness were measured and spirometry and sputum induction were performed. Mild exacerbation was defined as: (1) a decrease in morning peak expiratory flow (PEF) of >/= 20% but < 30% on at least two consecutive days as compared with the mean for the last 7 d of the run-in period; (2) awakening on two consecutive nights because of asthma; or (3) increased use of a short-acting beta(2)-agonist to eight or more puffs daily. Eight subjects did not develop exacerbations during the 8-wk study, whereas seven subjects developed mild exacerbations at Week 4 (n = 1), Week 6 (n = 1), and Week 8 (n = 5). The only significant difference between these two groups at baseline was a higher baseline sputum eosinophil count in subjects with subsequent exacerbations (p < 0.05). The increases in sputum eosinophils and exhaled NO were correlated with decreases in airway function, including decreases in morning PEF and FEV(1). However, multiple regression analysis suggested that the change in sputum eosinophils is a potentially useful marker in predicting loss of asthma control reflected by loss of airway function.