To evaluate the possibility that bronchoalveolar lavage could provide sufficient respiratory epithelial cells to quantify changes in epithelial cell types associated with chronic inflammation, we examined the epithelial cells obtained in the first infused (20 ml) aliquots that were processed separately from later aliquots, a process known to enrich for bronchial contents. Epithelial cells, including ciliated cells, goblet cells, and fragments of desquamated epithelium, were easily identified after preparation by cytocentrifugation and staining with a modified Giemsa stain. Quantification of the columnar cell types revealed that those with chronic bronchitis and asymptomatic smokers have increased goblet cells as a percentage of the total columnar epithelial cells (chronic bronchitics 36 +/- 2 percent, asymptomatic smokers 22 +/- 2 percent) compared with normal subjects (9 +/- 1 percent, p less than 0.001, ANOVA). Significantly, the goblet cell percentage was strongly correlated with other measures of bronchitis and measures of airflow obstruction such as the bronchitis index, a visually derived score at bronchoscopy of airway inflammation (r = 0.72, p less than 0.001), the percent neutrophils in the first infused aliquots (r = 0.44, p less than 0.05), and the FEV1 percent (r = -0.74, p less than 0.001). Thus, bronchoalveolar lavage is capable of providing sufficient bronchial epithelial cells for analysis, and the changes seen in the spectrum of columnar epithelial cells may reflect important underlying pathologic changes.