BACKGROUND: Sputum may provide an alternative source of bronchial cells to investigate characteristics of airway inflammation and its functional correlates in patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). METHODS: Two groups of clinically stable patients were studied: a group of 43 patients with mild or moderate asthma and a group of 18 patients with COPD. Twenty normal subjects formed a control group. Sputum production was either spontaneous or induced with inhaled hypertonic saline for five minute periods for up to 20 minutes. The concentration of saline was increased at intervals of 10 minutes from 3% to 4%. Plugs from the lower respiratory tract were selected for differential counting in cytocentrifugation preparations. Bronchial provocation tests were performed by inhaling progressive concentrations of histamine from a DeVilbiss 646 nebuliser and the concentration of histamine which caused a 20% fall in the forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) was calculated (PC20FEV1). RESULTS: Neutrophils predominated in the sputum of subjects with COPD while eosinophils predominated in the sputum of those with chronic asthma. However, in 28% of asthmatic subjects an increased percentage of neutrophils was found. In asthmatic patients the differential count of eosinophils was inversely related to the FEV1, FEV1/VC, and bronchial hyperresponsiveness, and directly related to clinical scores. CONCLUSIONS: The cellular profile of sputum in normal subjects and in patients with asthma and COPD is different. The concentration of eosinophils in the sputum correlates with the severity of asthma.
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