The effect of theophylline and cromolyn sodium on sleep was studied in 10 children with asthma who were 10 to 17 years of age (mean 13.5 +/- 2.4 years). Theophylline or cromolyn sodium was taken for 14 days in a double-blind, crossover, placebo-controlled trial. Theophylline blood levels before sleep were 10.2 +/- 4 micrograms/ml during the theophylline period. There was no difference in pulmonary function between the two periods. Theophylline did not disrupt sleep as measured by sleep latency, total sleep time, sleep efficiency, movement time, microarousals, and arousals. Apneic episodes (greater than or equal to 10 seconds) were of central origin and less frequent during the theophylline period (p less than 0.05). Arterial oxygen desaturation (greater than 5% decrease from baseline saturation when awake) was less frequent during the theophylline treatment (p less than 0.05). We conclude that theophylline treatment of the children's asthma did not disrupt sleep and appeared to have a protective effect in regard to apnea, hypopnea, and arterial oxygen saturation.