Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is characterized by a neutrophilic airway inflammation that can be demonstrated by examination of induced sputum. Theophylline has antiinflammatory effects in asthma, and in the present study we investigated whether a similar effect occurs in COPD patients treated with low doses of theophylline. Twenty-five patients with COPD were treated with theophylline (plasma level of 9-11 mg/L) for 4 weeks in a placebo-controlled, randomized, double-blind crossover study. Theophylline was well tolerated. Induced sputum inflammatory cells, neutrophils, interleukin-8, myeloperoxidase, and lactoferrin were all significantly reduced by about 22% by theophylline. Neutrophils from subjects treated with theophylline showed reduced chemotaxis to N-formyl-met-leu-phe (approximately 28%) and interleukin-8 (approximately 60%). Neutrophils from a healthy donor showed reduced chemotaxis (approximately 30%) to induced sputum samples obtained during theophylline treatment. These results suggest that theophylline has antiinflammatory properties that may be useful in the long-term treatment of COPD.