T-lymphocyte (T-LC)-derived cytokines have been implicated in asthma pathogenesis. Activation of peripheral blood CD4 but not CD8 T-LC and a Th2-type pattern of elevated cytokine mRNA expression in BAL fluid T-LC have been observed in asthmatics, but the principal source (CD4 or CD8 T-LC) of these cytokines is unknown. Our objective was to measure expression of Th1- and Th2-type cytokine mRNA and spontaneous secretion of IL-3, IL-5, and GM-CSF by peripheral blood CD4 and CD8 T-LC from asthmatics before and after oral glucocorticoid therapy and non-asthmatic controls. We used in situ hybridization to detect mRNA expression in isolated CD4 and CD8 T-LC, and an in vitro eosinophil survival assay to detect secretion of IL-3, IL-5, and GM-CSF in T-LC culture supernatants. Comparing the asthmatics with the controls, elevated percentages of CD4 T-LC expressed mRNA encoding IL-5, IL-4, and GM-CSF (P < 0.02) but not IL-3, IL-2, or IFN-gamma. In CD8 T-LC, mRNA expression was generally low with no significant differences between the groups. In the asthmatics, the percentages of CD4 T-LC expressing IL-5 mRNA correlated with disease severity and the numbers of peripheral blood eosinophils (P < 0.01). Culture supernatants of asthmatic CD4 but not CD8 T-LC exhibited significantly higher (P = 0.0003) eosinophil survival-prolonging activity compared with controls, in which low activity was detected. Inhibition with anti-cytokine antibodies suggested that GM-CSF, and to a lesser extent IL-5 and IL-3, could account for this activity. After oral glucocorticoid therapy of the asthmatics, lung function improved and the percentages of CD4 T-LC expressing mRNA encoding IL-3, IL-5, and GM-CSF but not IL-2, IL-4, or IFN-gamma were reduced (P < 0.04). Secretion of eosinophil survival-prolonging activity by the CD4 T-LC was also reduced (P = 0.004). We conclude that peripheral blood CD4 but not CD8 T-LC from asthmatics express cytokine mRNA in a Th2-type pattern and show elevated secretion of cytokines prolonging eosinophil survival. Glucocorticoid therapy of asthmatics is associated with a reduction in the percentages of CD4 T-LC expressing IL-3, IL-5, and GM-CSF mRNA and secretion of the corresponding proteins.