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BACKGROUND--Sputum analysis provides a non-invasive method of examining the airway secretions of subjects with asthma in order to better understand the inflammatory process. Increased proportions of eosinophils are generally seen in the sputum of subjects with asthma, especially when there is an exacerbation. An unexpected observation in the sputum of subjects with mild exacerbations of asthma is reported. METHODS--Thirty four consecutive subjects with symptoms consistent with a mild exacerbation of asthma were recruited for a treatment study. Inclusion criteria required persistent symptoms of chest tightness, dyspnoea, or wheezing for two weeks (without spontaneous improvement or alteration in dose of inhaled corticosteroid) and a forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) that was reversible to more than 75% predicted or known best to ensure the exacerbation was mild. Sputum (spontaneous or induced with hypertonic saline) from all subjects was examined for differential cell counts. Eosinophilic sputum was defined as > or = 4% eosinophils on two occasions or > 10% eosinophils once. Clinical characteristics, sputum differential counts, and measurements of airways obstruction were compared between the subjects with and without sputum eosinophilia. RESULTS--Almost half of the subjects (16 of 34) considered to have mildly uncontrolled asthma had no sputum eosinophilia. In comparison with the subjects who had sputum eosinophilia the non-eosinophilic group had less airways obstruction (FEV1% predicted 88% v 70%) and less severe airways hyperresponsiveness (PC20 methacholine 0.45 mg/ml v 0.13 mg/ml). There was no difference between the groups in the type or prevalence of symptoms, history of recent infections, smoking, relevant allergen exposure, or use of inhaled corticosteroid. CONCLUSIONS--Symptoms of mildly uncontrolled asthma are not always associated with eosinophilic airways inflammation as measured by sputum analysis. The causes and treatment of the non-eosinophilic condition require further investigation.