The effects of the mucolytic agent, dithioerythritol (DTE), and the temperature at which sputum processing is conducted on cellular and biochemical markers in induced sputum was assessed. Samples from healthy and atopic asthmatic subjects were treated with either DTE or phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) at 22 or 37 degrees C and compared for cell counts and concentrations of histamine, tryptase, eosinophil cationic protein (ECP), free interleukin (IL)-8, immunoglobulin (Ig)A, IL-8/IgA complexes and secretory component (SC). In addition, the influence of DTE on in vitro mediator release from blood eosinophils, basophils and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) mast cells was studied. Processing with DTE improved cytospin quality and increased the cell yield and measurable ECP, tryptase, IgA and SC, but reduced levels of histamine in PBS-treated samples and had no effect on IL-8. Cell counts or mediator levels were similar when sputum was processed at 22 or 37 degrees C, even though DTE induced blood basophils and BAL mast cells to release histamine at 37 degrees C. In spiking experiments, recovery of added ECP, tryptase, total IL-8 and histamine from sputum was similar in DTE- and PBS-processed sputum, but reduced for free IL-8 in PBS-treated samples. In conclusion, dithioerythritol improves cell and mediator recovery without causing cell activation when sputum processing is conducted at room temperature. The extent of recovery depends on the mediator studied.