Airway hyperreactivity in antigen-challenged animals is mediated by eosinophil major basic protein (MBP) that blocks inhibitory M(2) muscarinic receptors on parasympathetic nerves, increasing acetylcholine release onto M(3) muscarinic receptors on airway smooth muscle. Acutely, anticholinergics block hyperreactivity in antigen-challenged animals and reverse asthma exacerbations in the human, but are less effective in chronic asthma. We tested whether atropine, given before antigen challenge, affected hyperreactivity, M(2) receptor function, eosinophil accumulation, and activation. Sensitized guinea pigs received atropine (1 mg/kg ip) 1 h before challenge and 6 h later. Twenty-four hours after challenge, animals were anesthetized, vagotomized, paralyzed, and ventilated. Airway reactivity to electrical stimulation of the vagi and to intravenous acetylcholine was not altered by atropine pretreatment in nonsensitized animals, indicating that atropine was no longer blocking postjunctional muscarinic receptors. Antigen challenge induced airway hyperreactivity to vagal stimulation that was significantly potentiated by atropine pretreatment. Bronchoconstriction induced by acetylcholine was not changed by antigen challenge or by atropine pretreatment. M(2) receptor function was lost in challenged animals but protected by atropine pretreatment. Eosinophils in bronchoalveolar lavage and within airway tissues were significantly increased by challenge but significantly reduced by atropine pretreatment. However, extracellular MBP in challenged airways was significantly increased by atropine pretreatment, which may account for reduced eosinophils. Depleting eosinophils with antibody to IL-5 before challenge prevented hyperreactivity and significantly reduced MBP in airways of atropine-pretreated animals. Thus atropine pretreatment potentiated airway hyperreactivity by increasing eosinophil activation and degranulation. These data suggest that anticholinergics enhance eosinophil interactions with airway nerves.