Activation of lymphocyte subpopulations was determined in conjunction with levels of cytokines in peripheral blood and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) of asthmatics. Allergic asthmatics had increased numbers of CD4+ IL-2R+ T cells in peripheral blood and BAL, and T-cell activation closely correlated with numbers of low-affinity IgE receptor (CD23) bearing B cells. In contrast, in nonallergic asthmatics both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells from blood and BAL had increased expression of IL-2R, HLA-DR, and VLA-1. Furthermore, in the nonallergic asthmatics CD8+ T cells were decreased in blood but increased in BAL. Cytokine levels were determined in BAL fluid and supernatants from purified peripheral blood T cells and enriched BAL lymphocyte preparations. Allergic asthmatics were characterized by increased levels of IL-4 and IL-5, and this elevated IL-4 contributed to the elevated IgE levels found in these allergic subjects. In contrast, nonallergic asthmatics had elevated levels of IL-2 and IL-5, with IL-2 contributing to T-cell activation. In both types of asthma, the close correlation of IL-5 levels with eosinophilia suggests that IL-5 is responsible for the characteristic eosinophilia of asthma. Thus, we provide evidence of distinct T-cell activation resulting in different spectra of cytokines in allergic and nonallergic asthma.