Nasal epithelial (NE) cells were collected from the nasopharynx of 25 individuals with symptomatic colds and 27 healthy volunteers (controls), and ciliary beat frequency (CBF) was assessed by microscopy employing video motion analysis techniques. Baseline CBF was statistically significantly elevated in the group with colds compared to the control group (14.6 +/- 1.5 Hz [mean +/- SD] vs 13.8 +/- 0.9 Hz; p = 0.02). After four days of incubation in culture, there was a significant decrease in the CBF in both groups, with a change from baseline of 1.9 Hz for the cold group, compared to 1.0 Hz for the control group (p = 0.0001). The in vitro addition of ribavirin at 500 micrograms/ml to NE cells from individuals with colds preserved the viability of the cells and maintained the CBF at baseline values. Twenty-four (96 percent) of 25 ribavirin-treated specimens from the cold group survived for four days in culture, compared with 17 (68 percent) of 25 untreated cold specimens. In addition, the ribavirin-treated cells had a mean CBF of 14.2 +/- 1.3 Hz, compared with 12.7 +/- 1.9 Hz for the untreated cell samples (p = 0.0005). Ribavirin had no effect on NE cells from the control group. These results suggest that ribavirin in a concentration of 500 micrograms/ml may have some benefit in the treatment of acute rhinorrhea.