To determine the relationship between inflammatory cells in sputum, bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL), and bronchial mucosa, we counted the number of leukocytes in sputum, BAL, and bronchial biopsies obtained from subjects with asthma and with chronic bronchitis in stable condition or during exacerbations. Sputum was induced by inhalation of hypertonic saline in the asthma group. Spontaneous sputum was collected in the chronic bronchitis groups. Differential counts of leukocytes were performed on cytospin preparations of sputum and BAL. Eosinophils, macrophages, neutrophils, and lymphocytes were quantified in the submucosa of the bronchial biopsies. In asthma and in stable chronic bronchitis, the percentages of neutrophils were significantly higher in sputum than in BAL, whereas the opposite was true of the percentages of macrophages and lymphocytes. The lymphocyte was the predominant cell infiltrating the bronchial submucosa in all groups. BAL eosinophils correlated with submucosal and sputum eosinophils in the asthma and exacerbated chronic bronchitis groups. A similar trend was observed between submucosal and sputum eosinophils. In conclusion, the relative proportion of inflammatory cells was different in sputum, BAL, and bronchial mucosa. However, there was a fairly good agreement between the number of eosinophils counted with the three techniques in asthmatics and in exacerbated chronic bronchitics, suggesting that sputum cell analysis may be used for a noninvasive assessment of airway eosinophilia.