In order to investigate the possible role of arachidonic acid metabolites as lipid mediators in cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sputum from patients with cystic fibrosis, chronic bronchitis, or bronchiectasis was analyzed for various eicosanoids using a combination of radioimmunoassay and bioassay. Leukotriene (LT) B4, cysteinyl-containing LTs, and prostaglandins (PGs) E2, F2 alpha, 6-oxo-PGF1 alpha, and thromboxane B2 were found in all sputum samples. Saliva, which can contaminate sputum, contained low concentrations of prostanoids but not LTs. Inflammatory cells, including polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNs) are present in sputum. Because LTB4 generated by these cells is chemotactic for PMNs, it is suggested that this dihydroxy acid contributes to the inflammation of cystic fibrosis and other diseases characterized by airway obstruction. The source of the cysteinyl-containing LTs is less clear; these LTs may constrict respiratory smooth muscle and/or stimulate mucus formation.