Fatal attacks of asthma usually occur against a background of chronic persistent symptoms, presumably due to chronic airway inflammation and changes in airway wall structure. Death from asthma is usually attributed to excessive airway narrowing due to a combination of muscle spasm and mucous plugging. To test the hypothesis that airway wall structure and/or the inflammatory cell profile are related to the duration of a fatal attack of asthma, inflammatory cell profiles and airway structure were examined in cases of fatal asthma and related to the duration of the fatal attack. In transverse sections of large and small airways from subjects dying from asthma, the numbers of eosinophils, neutrophils and lymphomononuclear cells were counted. The amount of smooth muscle shortening, the areas of airway wall, smooth muscle, mucous gland and cartilage were measured. Cell counts, airway dimensions and muscle shortening were compared in cases dying within 2 h of the fatal attack (short duration) and those dying more than 5 h after the onset of the fatal attack (long duration). In cases with fatal attacks of short duration, the numbers of neutrophils and the mucous gland area were increased and the numbers of eosinophils were reduced compared to cases with fatal attacks of long duration. Lymphocyte numbers, airway wall thickness, the areas of smooth muscle and cartilage and the amount of smooth muscle shortening were similar in the two groups. These findings suggest fatal attacks of asthma may be triggered by an inflammatory stimulus and suggest that increased production of mucous may contribute to sudden death in such cases.