Although the mechanisms of nocturnal worsening of pulmonary function in asthmatics have not been entirely established, airway inflammation is felt to be a major factor in disease severity. Consequently, to determine whether changes in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid cellular components and their functions are related to nocturnal airway obstruction, we performed BAL at 4:00 A.M. and at 4:00 P.M. in asthma subjects with (n = 5) and without (n = 10) nocturnal asthma. No significant changes were observed from 4:00 P.M. to 4:00 A.M. in the concentration of total cells or the percentage or concentration of eosinophils or neutrophils in BAL fluid from subjects with or without nocturnal asthma. However, superoxide anion generation by air-space cells from subjects with nocturnal asthma was significantly greater at 4:00 A.M. than at 4:00 P.M. (6.9 +/- 1.7 versus 1.8 +/- 0.5 nmol/500K cells/h, p less than 0.05). Moreover, superoxide production at 4:00 A.M. was greater in subjects with than in those without nocturnal asthma (6.9 +/- 1.7 versus 2.2 +/- 0.6, p less than 0.02). Furthermore, in our group of asthmatics, the change in generation of superoxide anion from 4:00 P.M. to 4:00 A.M. was significantly correlated with the change in FEV1 (r = -0.71, p less than 0.01). We conclude that the development of nocturnal airway obstruction in asthma is associated with enhanced production of oxygen radicals by air-space cells. Because oxygen radicals can cause airway injury and thus enhance bronchial obstruction, it is possible that the release of these reactive compounds is causally associated with nocturnal asthma.