Asthma is associated with increased airway responsiveness to pharmacologic agents such as methacholine. Increases in airway responsiveness after exposure to allergen or ozone are associated with increased inflammatory cells in bronchoalveolar lavage both in human and in animal studies. We studied the total and differential cell counts in 10 stable atopic asthmatics who had airway hyperresponsiveness but no clinical features of airway inflammation and 10 nonasthmatic subjects, using a conventional 100-ml lavage and a 20-ml washing. Metachromatic cell numbers and eosinophils were increased in both the lavage (p less than 0.01 for metachromatic cells; p = 0.05 for eosinophils) and washing (p less than 0.025 for metachromatic cells and p = 0.03 for eosinophils) compared with those in nonasthmatics. In asthmatics, metachromatic cell numbers in the lavage and washing, and total cell count and, to a lesser extent, eosinophils in lavage were significantly correlated with measurements of airway responsiveness. Major basic protein in lavage and blood did not differ between asthmatics and nonasthmatics. The washing, although it revealed a different cell profile from the lavage in both normal subjects and asthmatics, did not show differences between asthmatics and nonasthmatics undetected by the lavage specimen. We conclude that there is evidence of cellular inflammation in the airway of stable asthmatics and that small volume washings do not add to the information concerning the cell profile of asthmatics and nonasthmatics provided by conventional lavage.