The inflammatory process in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is active mainly in the airways, but little is known about the properties of the inflammatory cells in this compartment. We have studied leucocytes in induced sputum of COPD patients compared to controls in order to uncover what types of macrophages might be involved in the disease. Sputum induction was performed by inhalation of nebulized sodium chloride solution. Leucocytes were isolated and stained with specific monoclonal antibodies for analysis in flow cytometry. Flow cytometry analysis revealed that a major portion of CD14+ macrophages in COPD has lower forward scatter, i.e. they are small macrophages. While in control donors these small macrophages accounted for 6.9% of all macrophages, the percentage of these cells in COPD was 45.7%. CD14 and HLA-DR expression was high on these small sputum macrophages while the large sputum macrophages expressed only low levels of these surface molecules, both in control donors and COPD patients. Small sputum macrophages of both control donors and COPD patients showed higher levels of constitutive tumour necrosis factor (TNF) compared to the large macrophages. TNF was inducible by lipopolysaccharide (LPS) preferentially in the small sputum macrophages in the control donors but there was no further induction in COPD patients. These data show that the small sputum macrophages are a major macrophage population in COPD and that these cells exhibit features of highly active inflammatory cells and may therefore be instrumental in airway inflammation in COPD.