Many studies have demonstrated that, in asthma, serum levels of eosinophil cationic protein (ECP) are related to the activity and severity of the disease and can be used to evaluate the response to steroid treatment. During exacerbations of chronic bronchitis, airway inflammation shows some features of asthmatic inflammatory processes, with recruitment of eosinophils and recovery of significant amounts of ECP in bronchial lavage fluid (BAL). Involvement of neutrophils, with high levels of myeloperoxidase (MPO), is, on the contrary, typical of this latter disease, and not shared with asthma. In spite of the information collected with BAL and bronchial biopsy studies, few data still exist on serum levels of these proteins in chronic bronchitis. The objective of this study was to assess if serum levels of ECP and MPO are specifically increased in exacerbations of chronic bronchitis, as compared to other non-asthmatic acute respiratory disturbances. Serum ECP, MPO and immunoglobulin E (IgE) levels were measured in 17 non-atopic patients with exacerbation of chronic bronchitis with airway obstruction (COPD) and in 11 control subjects seeking emergency medical treatment for unrelated acute respiratory problems. Spirometry was performed in patients able to give the necessary collaboration. All the subjects of this study were recruited from the emergency department. Both ECP and MPO were significantly increased in serum from patients with exacerbated COPD (22.2 +/- 4.1 vs 9.5 +/- 1.4 mcg/L and 853 +/- 168 vs 375 +/- 41 mcg/L) and a strong correlation existed between these two variables (r = 0.782). A further control group was made of 11 patients with stable COPD. These subjects had levels of both ECP (13.1 +/- 2.7 mcg/L) and MPO (469 +/- 71) significantly lower than patients with exacerbated disease and higher than those without COPD. We conclude that serum ECP and MPO are increased during the exacerbations of COPD. These observations can give a basis for further studies aimed to evaluate the utility of these two proteins as markers of activity and severity of COPD.