Bronchial responsiveness to inhaled acetylcholine (ACh) and inflammatory cell recruitment in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) were studied in inbred Brown-Norway rats actively sensitized to, and later exposed to, ovalbumin (OA). We examined animals 21 days after initial sensitization at 18 to 24 hours, or 5 days after a single challenge, or after the last of seven repeated exposures administered every 3 days. BALF was examined as an index of inflammatory changes within the lung. Animals repeatedly exposed to OA aerosols had an increased baseline lung resistance and a significant increase in bronchial responsiveness to inhaled ACh compared to control animals at both 18 to 24 hours and 5 days after the last OA exposure. Sensitized animals receiving a single OA aerosol also demonstrated bronchial hyperresponsiveness (BHR) to inhaled ACh (p less than 0.01) at 18 to 24 hours of a similar order as the multiple-exposed group. There was a significant increase in eosinophils, lymphocytes, and neutrophils in BALF at 18 to 24 hours but not at 5 days after single or multiple exposure to OA aerosol in the sensitized groups. Control animals demonstrated no changes in bronchial responsiveness, although a small but significant increase in inflammatory cells was observed compared to saline-only treated animals. There was a significant correlation between bronchial responsiveness and eosinophil counts in the BALF in the single allergen-exposed group (Rs = 0.68; p less than 0.05). We conclude that (1) BHR after allergen exposure in sensitized rats is associated with the presence of pulmonary inflammation but persists despite the regression of inflammatory cells in BALF after multiple OA exposures, and (2) this rat model has many characteristics of human allergen-induced BHR.