Progressive lung disease in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) is caused by thick secretions, which cause airway obstruction and subsequent colonization and infection by inhaled pathogenic microorganisms. Recently, recombinant human DNase has been shown to reduce the viscoelasticity of sputum in patients with cystic fibrosis and to improve lung function. Ultrasonically nebulized hypertonic saline (HS) has been demonstrated to enhance mucociliary clearance and sputum expectoration by rehydrating airway secretions, and may therefore provide a low cost alternative. We studied the changes in pulmonary function and symptoms in a group of patients with CF who have moderate to severe lung disease. The patients were evaluated following 2 weeks of treatment with HS in an open-label study. Subjects were randomly allocated to receive 10 ml of either 0.9% NaCl (IS) or 6% NaCl (HS). Twice daily, prior to physiotherapy, treatments were delivered by a portable ultrasonic nebulizer. To prevent bronchoconstriction, 600 mg of salbutamol was administered prior to the nebulized solutions. A symptom score was recorded and spirometry was performed on day 0 before therapy was started, on day 14 (the last day of therapy), and on day 28 (14 days after the last treatment with either IS or HS). Fifty-two patients (32 males), with a mean age of 16.2 (range 7-36) years completed the study. There was no difference in baseline characteristics between the two groups. Following 2 weeks of treatment, there was a significant improvement from baseline in FEV1 of 15.0 +/- 16.0% (mean +/- SD) in patients treated with HS, compared with a change of 2.8 +/- 13% in those on IS therapy (P = 0.004). Furthermore, there was a subjective improvement in the effectiveness of chest physiotherapy as reported by those using HS (P = 0.02). The treatment was well tolerated. We conclude that in patients with CF, ultrasonically nebulized hypertonic saline improves lung function in a way similar to that reported for human recombinant DNase when inhaled over a 2 week period. Nebulized saline also enhances the perception of effectiveness of chest physiotherapy.