Several epidemiological studies using sensitive detection methodologies have confirmed that the majority of acute asthma exacerbations follow upper respiratory tract infections--common colds. Most of these colds are due to human rhinoviruses (RVs). RVs are able to reach and replicate in epithelial cells of the lower airways and can activate these cells to produce pro-inflammatory mediators. Under some circumstances, RVs can also become cytotoxic to the epithelium. Atopic asthmatic individuals produce less interferon-gamma and more interleukin-10 than normal subjects in response to RV infection. Symptom severity as well as viral shedding after experimental RV infection, is inversely correlated with 'atopic' status, expressed as the interferon-gamma to interleukin-5 ratio. Expression of co-stimulatory molecules on immune cells is also affected in atopic asthmatics, suggesting an aberrant immune response to RV that may lead to suboptimal viral clearance and viral persistence. Some of the above effects can be reversed in vitro by corticosteroids, second-generation antihistamines or anti-oxidants; however, the optimal strategy for treating acute asthma exacerbations requires further research at both mechanistic and clinical levels.