Airway histopathological changes in cystic fibrosis (CF) include damage to the epithelial tissue and accumulation of polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN). Airways of CF patients are usually colonized with bacteria such as mucoid Pseudomonas aeruginosa (PA). Bacteria and PMN can both release proteolytic enzymes capable of causing tissue damage. This study aims to clarify and compare the roles of these agents in epithelium damage. Epithelial cell (EC) damage and detachment induced by sputum samples from CF or non-CF patients, with and without lung infection, were assessed on amnionic EC in an in vitro model of airway epithelium. Protease activity was determined using inhibitor profiles, and compared to the proteolytic activity of isolated neutrophils and bacteria. Sputa from CF patients and infected non-CF patients induced high levels of detachment. PA also induced high levels of EC detachment but Staphylococcus aureus and Haemophilus influenzae, two other bacteria commonly isolated from CF sputa, induced no detachment. Antiprotease inhibition profiles were similar for PMN and sputa-induced EC detachment, but different for PA-induced detachment. These results suggest that PMN proteolytic enzymes, probably elastase and cathepsin G, are more likely to be the inducers of tissue damage in the airways of CF patients than PA proteolytic enzymes.