Inflammation in nasal and airway tissue caused by allergens, microbial infection, and air pollution are likely to be regulated by inflammatory mediators produced by airway epithelial cells. We have therefore investigated the baseline expression of a number of cytokine genes known to be important inducers and modulators of inflammation, in freshly isolated human nasal epithelium. Cells were obtained by superficial scraping of turbinate tissue, and cDNA for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification was reverse-transcribed directly from lysates of 3 x 10(3) to 5 x 10(3) epithelial cells using random hexamers. Constitutive expression of relatively high levels of interleukin-8 (IL-8) mRNA but undetectable levels (< 1 mRNA copy/cell) of granulocyte/macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), IL-6, IL-1, or tumor necrosis factor (TNF) mRNA were found after PCR amplification of the cDNA. IL-8 protein, but not IL-6, was identified in the nasal epithelial cells by immunocytochemistry. Infection with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or stimulation of nasal epithelium for 4 h with TNF or IL-1 in vitro resulted in a 4- to 10-fold increase in IL-8 mRNA expression but not in the expression of detectable levels of mRNA for the other cytokines. IL-8 was secreted by RSV-, IL-1-, and TNF-stimulated as well as unstimulated nasal epithelial cells after 6 to 20 h of culture. Neither IL-6, GM-CSF, nor TNF activity/immunoreactivity was detectable in the culture supernatants. Thus, it appears that IL-8 is a major cytokine of human nasal epithelium, constitutively expressed and readily secreted upon virus infection or stimulation with IL-1 and TNF.