The aim of this cross-sectional study was to assess the prevalence and characteristics of bronchial hyperresponsiveness (BHR) in 43 women cleaners (aged 26 to 57) and 37 women cooks (aged 29 to 55) and compare them with 45 controls (women office workers aged 27 to 58). The evaluation of all subjects included a questionnaire, skin prick tests to common aeroallergens, spirometry, and histamine challenge (PC20 < or = 8 mg mL(-1)). We found higher BHR prevalence in cleaners and cooks than in office workers (30.2 % and 29.7 %, vs. 17.7 %, respectively), but statistical significance was not reached. The prevalence of mild and moderate to severe BHR was similar in all groups. Borderline BHR prevalence was significantly higher in cleaners than in controls (16.2 % vs. 6.6 %, P=0.032) whereas the difference was on the verge of significance in cooks (13.5 % vs. 6.6 %, P=0.081). Moderate to severe BHR was strongly associated with positive family history of asthma and atopy in all groups. Mild BHR was significantly associated with daily smoking in cleaners (P=0.031) and cooks (P=0.021), as well as with the duration of exposure in cleaners (P=0.038). Borderline BHR was closely related to daily smoking and duration of exposure in both cleaners and cooks. Our findings indicate an important role of workplace exposure in borderline BHR development, as well as the significant effect of smoking on mild BHR development in women cleaners and cooks.