Degree and duration of bronchial hyperreactivity (BHR) after environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) inhalation was assessed in 31 smoke-sensitive subjects with asthma who exhibited lower airway symptoms on ETS exposure (group I) and 39 smoke-sensitive subjects without asthma who manifested only upper airway symptoms on cigarette-smoke exposure (group II). Subjects were challenged with ETS for 4 hours in a static-test chamber. The atmosphere was continuously monitored for airborne particulate levels (800 cpm), total suspended particulates (1266 +/- 283 micrograms/m3), and airborne nicotine levels (226 +/- 49 micrograms/m2). Methacholine challenges were performed before and serially after cigarette-smoke exposure, and the provocative dose causing a 20% fall in FEV1 was determined. Five of the 31 smoke-sensitive subjects with asthma and none of the smoke-sensitive subjects without asthma reacted to cigarette-smoke challenge (greater than or equal to 20% fall from baseline FEV1). Thirty-two percent (10/31) of the subjects with asthma demonstrated increased BHR at 6 hours, 29% (9/31) at 24 hours, and 13% (4/31) up to day 14 after ETS challenge. Of the subjects without asthma, 18% (7/39) demonstrated increased BHR at 6 hours, 10% (4/39) at 24 hours, and 8% (3/39) at 3 weeks. These studies demonstrated an increase in BHR after cigarette-smoke challenge in a number of study subjects (although they were clinically asymptomatic) and suggest that prolonged subclinical airway inflammation can occur in the absence of demonstrable change in airway caliber on exposure to ETS.