Distribution of airway junctional complex proteins after antigen or lipopolysaccharide challenge in sensitized or naive mice, respectively, was investigated. E-cadherin immunoreactivity was detected continuously along neighboring epithelial cell borders and between adjacent alveolar epithelial cells in naive and saline-challenged mice. Occludin and ZO-1 immunoreactivity were observed in the tight junction areas. Both challenges induced changes in epithelial morphology and phenotype, accompanied initially by focal loss of epithelial E-cadherin that increased in size with time and number of allergen challenges. Allergen challenge also led to focal loss of occludin and ZO-1. Western blot analysis revealed increased levels of sE-cadherin in lavage fluid after either challenge, and this increase correlated with lavage neutrophil numbers (P = 0.002). Immunocytochemistry of lavage cells 6 h after either challenge revealed E-cadherin epitopes within cytoplasmic vacuoles of neutrophils, the major cell type. In contrast, peripheral blood neutrophils or tissue neutrophils before epithelial transmigration were negative, suggesting that in airway inflammation, E-cadherin extracellular domain is cleaved by neutrophils during epithelial penetration, instigating the destabilization of adherens and tight junctions. This junctional deterioration could lead to a progressive decrease in epithelial integrity and induce alterations in epithelial morphology, with consequent enhanced paracellular transit of antigens and pathogens.