The pattern of mediators and appearance of cells that stain with alcian blue during human experimental early and late phase allergic reactions suggest that basophils accumulate in nasal secretions within hours of local Ag stimulation. To further explore whether the histamine containing cells that enter the nose after Ag challenge are mast cells or basophils, we studied their functional and phenotypic characteristics. Approximately 24 h after intranasal Ag provocation of subjects with allergic rhinitis, nasal lavage was performed, and the cells were isolated for degranulation studies, analysis of surface Ag, and viability. The average histamine content per alcian blue staining cell was 0.78 +/- 0.2 pg (n = 7), similar to that reported for peripheral blood basophils. Nasal cells were challenged in vitro with anti-IgE, ragweed Amb a I, and FMLP and their responses were compared to those of peripheral blood basophils isolated simultaneously from the same donors. Nasal leukocytes released histamine maximally at 0.1 micrograms/ml of anti-IgE (35.8 +/- 7.8%, n = 7) and responded to FMLP (25.4 +/- 9.9%, n = 7). The response of the cells to ragweed Amb a I and anti-IgE was attenuated compared to peripheral blood basophils. Anti-IgE-induced histamine release was calcium and temperature dependent. Dual color immunofluorescence and flow cytometric analysis of the recovered nasal cells coexpressed CD18, a leukocyte marker not expressed by mast cells. The nasal cells consistently had high levels of spontaneous histamine release (19.5 +/- 2.0%, n = 22). The viability of all cells, assessed by erythrosin B dye exclusion, was 70 +/- 2% (n = 15). However, the viability of IgE-bearing cells was only 28.3 +/- 5.7% (n = 4). The characteristics of histamine release and the nature of the cellular surface markers provide functional proof that the histamine-containing cells accumulating after nasal Ag challenge are basophils and not mast cells.