BACKGROUND--In vitro studies have suggested that both the viscoelastic properties of lung secretions and the peak flow attained during simulated cough influence clearance. This study examines the possible association of the viscoelastic properties of sputum and maximum expiratory flow with measured effectiveness of mucus clearance induced by instructed cough and by forced expiration technique (FET) in patients with airways obstruction. METHODS--Nineteen patients (11 men and eight women) of mean (SE) age, % predicted FEV1, and daily sputum wet weight of 64 (2) years, 52 (6)%, and 37.5 (7.9) g respectively participated in the study. Mucus movement from proximal and peripheral lung regions was measured by an objective non-invasive radioaerosol technique. Each patient underwent three assessments: control, cough, and FET. During cough and FET, maximum expiratory flow was measured at the mouth level. Apparent viscosity and elasticity of the expectorated sputum samples were measured with a viscometer. RESULTS--Compared with the control run (mean (SE) clearance: 16 (3)%) there was an increase in clearance from the whole lung during cough (44 (5)%) and FET (42 (5)%), and also an enhanced clearance of inhaled, deposited radioaerosol from the trachea, inner and intermediate regions of the lungs, but not from the outer region. There were, however, no differences in regional clearance between cough and FET. Neither regional nor total clearance correlated with maximum expiratory flow, apparent viscosity, elasticity, or daily sputum wet weight. CONCLUSIONS--These results confirm that cough and FET both promote effective clearance but suggest that, unlike in vitro studies, sputum production and viscoelasticity, as well as maximum expiratory flow, provide no guide to clearance efficacy in humans.