We investigated the phenotype of cells expressing messenger RNA encoding interleukin 4 (IL-4), IL-5, IL-2, and interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) and bronchial biopsies (BX) from seven mild atopic asthmatic patients and nine nonasthmatic controls. Immunocytochemistry followed by in situ hybridization using either 35S- or digoxigenin-labeled riboprobes was performed on cytospins from BAL and BX, respectively. With BAL or BX, in situ hybridization alone showed significant increases in percentages of IL-2, IL-4, and IL-5 mRNA+ cells when asthmatics were compared to nonasthmatic controls. Double immunocytochemistry-in situ hybridization revealed that > 70% of IL-4 and IL-5 mRNA+ cells were activated T cells (CD3+). The remaining IL-4 and IL-5 mRNA+ signals were colocalized to tryptase+ mast cells, and activated eosinophils (EG2+). Rare IL-4 and IL-5 mRNA+ cells were observed in nonasthmatic controls, the majority being CD3+ cells, as were IL-2 and IFN-gamma mRNA+ cells (in both asthmatics and controls). A few IL-4 (< 8%) and IL-5 (< 5%) mRNA+ signals did not colocalize with any of the cells identified by immunocytochemistry. Thus, we provide further evidence that CD3+ T cells are the most abundant cells expressing IL-4 and IL-5 mRNA in BAL and BX from allergic asthma. Fewer, but detectable, numbers of tryptase+ mast cells and EG2+ eosinophils also expressed these transcripts.