Rhinoviruses are the major cause of the common cold and a trigger of acute asthma exacerbations. Whether these exacerbations result from direct infection of the lower airway or from indirect mechanisms consequent on infection of the upper airway alone is currently unknown. Lower respiratory infection was investigated in vitro by exposing primary human bronchial epithelial cells to rhinoviruses and in vivo after experimental upper respiratory infection of human volunteers. Bronchial infection was confirmed by both approaches. Furthermore, rhinoviruses induced production of interleukin-6, -8, and -16 and RANTES and were cytotoxic to cultured respiratory epithelium. This evidence strongly supports a direct lower respiratory epithelial reaction as the initial event in the induction of rhinovirus-mediated asthma exacerbations. The frequency of infection and the nature of the inflammatory response observed are similar to those of the upper respiratory tract, suggesting that rhinovirus infections may be one of the most important causes of lower in addition to upper respiratory disease.