BACKGROUND: Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways driven by T cell activation. Th2 cells and their cytokines are thought to play a role in the pathophysiology of allergic as well as non-allergic asthma. METHODS: Airway cells were obtained by sputum induction from 15 healthy and 39 asthmatic individuals and the airway T cell cytokine profiles (interleukin (IL)-4, IL-5, IL-13, IL-10 and interferon (IFN)-gamma) at the mRNA level were studied by real time RT-PCR. RESULTS: Asthma patients had increased expression of IL-5 (p = 0.001) and IL-13 (p = 0.03) mRNA in sputum compared with non-asthmatic controls. IL-4 mRNA and IFN-gamma mRNA were detectable in the sputum of 44% and 21% of patients, respectively, but not in controls. Sputum IL-10 mRNA levels did not differ significantly between patients and controls. Sputum mRNA expression levels of IL-4, IL-5, and IL-13 were significantly correlated with the percentage of eosinophils and were higher in subjects with allergic asthma than in those with non-allergic asthma (p = 0.03, p = 0.02 and p = 0.0002, respectively); they did not differ between mild asthmatic subjects and those with moderate to severe asthma. In contrast, IFN-gamma mRNA expression was higher in non-allergic than in allergic patients (p = 0.04) and higher in patients with moderate to severe asthma than in those with mild asthma (p<0.01). Sputum IL-5 mRNA levels (but not the other cytokine mRNA levels) were also correlated with exhaled nitric oxide (eNO) and with bronchial hyperreactivity expressed as the histamine concentration resulting in a 20% decrease in forced expiratory volume in 1 second. CONCLUSION: Real time RT-PCR analysis of mRNA in induced sputum confirms a predominance of Th2 cytokines in both allergic and non-allergic asthma. IL-5 levels reflect eosinophil infiltration as well as eNO levels and hyperreactivity, and levels of the Th1 cytokine IFN-gamma indicate asthma severity. The technique is a promising tool for use in further studies of asthma severity and disease activity.