Equine recurrent airway obstruction (RAO) is thought to result from an aberrant immune response to inhaled antigens, modulated by T lymphocytes via the secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines. However data relating to the phenotypes of the T lymphocytes present in peripheral blood and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid of RAO horses and their cytokine profiles are contradictory. The aim of this study was to further investigate the cytokine (IL-4, IL-5, IL-13 and INF-gamma) mRNA expression profile in peripheral blood lymphocytes and bronchoalveolar lavage lymphocytes from RAO and control horses, before and at 48 h after horses were exposed to hay/straw. In contrast to previous studies, cytokine expression was quantified in populations of CD4 and CD8 T lymphocytes which were purified using magnetic bead antibody cell separation. Hay/straw exposure induced clinical airway obstruction, airway neutrophilia and airway lymphocytosis in RAO horses, and, induced a mild, but significant, airway neutrophilia in controls. However, hay/straw exposure had no significant effect on peripheral blood lymphocyte or bronchoalveolar lavage lymphocyte cytokine expression in either group. In conclusion, RAO was not associated with alterations in lymphocyte cytokine expression that are consistent with Th1 or Th2 responses, but rather with a general down-regulation in expression of the measured cytokines in peripheral blood lymphocytes and bronchoalveolar lavage lymphocytes. (C) 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.