Potential bacterial pathogens are found in the airways in several diseases that are associated with neutrophilic inflammation. The aim of this study was to characterize subjects with stable asthma, with no symptoms of respiratory infection, to assess whether key potentially pathogenic bacteria were present in significant quantities in the airways and to correlate this with the pattern of airway inflammation and oxidative stress. Subjects with stable asthma (n = 115) and healthy controls (n = 8) underwent clinical assessment, including hypertonic saline challenge combined with sputum induction. A significant load of potentially pathogenic bacteria (> 10(6) cfu/mL) was cultured from the sputum of 17 (15%) subjects with stable asthma and was associated with higher total cell counts, proportion and number of neutrophils, sputum IL-8 and 8-isoprostane concentrations. The role of bacteria in potentiating neutrophilic asthma warrants further investigation. Therapies such as antibiotic and antioxidant treatment may be most effective in this sub-group of patients.