This study was designed to determine the potential importance of airway wall thickening in the pathogenesis of the excess airways narrowing of asthma. The airways in postmortem specimens of lung obtained from 18 patients who suffered from asthma were compared to similar airways from 23 patients without asthma. Each airway was projected onto a digitizing board of a microcomputer to trace the internal and external perimeter of the airway and to calculate the submucosal and mucosal thicknesses. The relaxed length of the airway smooth muscle and the shortening required to occlude the airway lumen were calculated. These data show that the wall area was greater (p less than 0.001) in the membranous and cartilaginous airways of asthmatic patients and the airway smooth muscle shortening required to occlude the lumen was less in asthmatic than nonasthmatic airways (p less than 0.001). The increased wall area was due to increased areas of epithelium, muscle, and submucosa. We conclude that the walls of the airways of patients with asthma are thickened by chronic inflammation and that this thickening could be as important as smooth muscle shortening in determining the airway responsiveness of these patients.