Atopic asthma is characterized by bronchial mucosal inflammation, involving eosinophils, mast cells, and lymphocytes. It has been suggested that the development and maintenance of this allergic inflammation is due to T-lymphocyte activation with predominant production of the cytokines interleukin 4 (IL-4) and IL-5. To address the ability of peripheral blood and bronchoalveolar lavage T-cells to generate IL-2, IL-4, or interferon gamma (IFN-gamma), we have employed a flow cytometric method which permits analysis of cytokine production at the single cell level within 5 h of obtaining cell samples. When stimulated with PMA and ionomycin, there was a greatly increased percentage of IFN-gamma-producing cells among bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) T-cells from the subjects with asthma (median 74%), compared with atopic and nonatopic controls (35 and 43%, respectively; P>0.01). The proportion of BAL T-cells producing IL-4 was small (median 1.7%, range 0 to 7.8% in the asthmatic group). In all three groups, the proportion of BAL T-cells producing IL-2 or IFN-gamma was increased compared with T-cells from peripheral blood. There was no significant difference between the three groups in the percentage of BAL T-cells producing IL-2, or in the percentage of peripheral blood T-cells producing IFN-gamma, IL-2 or IL-4. These findings indicate that IL-4 production is confined to a relatively small proportion of airway and blood T-cells and that there is selective enhancement of IFN-gamma production by airway T-cells in asthma.