The effect of prolonged inhaled corticosteroid treatment on bronchial immunopathology was assessed in 25 nonsmoking mildly asthmatic subjects previously receiving intermittent inhaled beta 2-agonist alone. Inhaled beclomethasone dipropionate (BDP), 500 micrograms twice per day or placebo was administered for 4 mo in a double-blind parallel group study. Histamine bronchial provocation, fiberoptic bronchoscopic biopsy, and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) were performed before and after treatment. There was no difference in bronchial responsiveness or lung function between groups. In patients treated with BDP compared with placebo, there was a significant reduction in toluidine blue-staining mast cells (p = 0.028) and total (p = 0.005) and activated eosinophils (p = 0.05) in biopsies but no difference in eosinophils or eosinophil cationic protein in BAL. Granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor expression was significantly reduced in the bronchial epithelium, and the thickness of Type III collagen deposition in the bronchial lamina reticularis reduced from 29.7 +/- 4.4 to 19.8 +/- 3.4 microns (mean +/- 95% confidence interval) (p = 0.04). No change in helper or activated helper T cells occurred. Prolonged BDP treatment reduces inflammatory infiltration, proinflammatory cytokine expression, and subepithelial collagen deposition, a recognized abnormality in asthma.