There is increasing evidence that leukocyte-endothelial adhesion molecules are important in inflammatory airway disease because of their involvement in the primary steps of entrapment and migration of leukocytes to the site of inflammation. Recently, circulating forms of these adhesion molecules have been described, although their origin, fate, and function are still unknown. We have used an antigen capture ELISA to measure the concentrations of circulating intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (cICAM-1), E-selectin (cE-selectin), and vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (cVCAM-1) in the peripheral blood of 13 atopic and 16 non-atopic normal subjects, 29 patients with stable asthma, and inpatients with acute asthma on Day 1 (n = 38), Day 3 (n = 29), and Day 28 (n = 13) of an asthmatic episode. Circulating ICAM-1 and E-selectin levels were significantly raised in acute asthma on all three study days when compared with those observed in stable asthma, atopic normal, or nonatopic normal volunteers with no significant differences among the latter three groups. Circulating VCAM-1 was not significantly increased in any of the groups studied. There were no correlations among the concentrations of these three circulating adhesion molecules. The elevated concentrations of cICAM-1 and cE-selectin in acute asthma may reflect the extensive inflammatory response occurring in the airways during acute exacerbations of the disease with airway obstruction. It is possible that the cytokine and mediator profiles in acute asthma lead to the preferential synthesis and expression of these two circulating adhesion molecules in comparison with cVCAM-1.