CD8+ve T-cell responses play a primary role in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but there is little information regarding COPD exacerbations. Sputum induction is a relatively non-invasive and safe method to study airway inflammation. The aim of the study was to investigate changes in airway T-lymphocyte subpopulations at the onset of severe COPD exacerbations via analysis of sputum. Induced sputum samples were collected from 12 COPD patients aged (mean+/-sd) 69+/-7 years, ex-smokers (68+/-23 pack-years), mean FEV1 (%predicted) 40+/-14 at the onset of an acute severe exacerbation requiring hospital admission and 16 weeks after remission of the exacerbation. Inflammatory cells and T-lymphocyte subpopulations (CD4, CD8, Tc1, Tc2) were measured using chemical and double immunocytochemical methods. Increased percentages of sputum neutrophils (P=0.002) and decreased CD4/CD8 and CD8-IFNgamma/CD8-IL4+ve (Tc1/Tc2) cell ratios (P=0.03, P=0.02, respectively) were found at the onset of exacerbation compared to stable state. We conclude that a CD8+ve type-2-mediated immune response is induced at the onset of severe COPD exacerbation.