BACKGROUND: Airway responsiveness to histamine and methacholine, direct smooth muscle spasmogens, is increased following inhalation of allergen. Although the aetiology of this phenomenon is unclear, increased cellular or neural activity may be involved since allergen also induces increases in airway responsiveness to the mast cell stimulus adenosine-5'-monophosphate (AMP) and the neural stimulus bradykinin. METHODS: To explore this further, the airway responsiveness to sodium metabisulphite (MBS), an indirect neural stimulus with similar characteristics to bradykinin, was compared in 18 mild steroid-naive asthmatic subjects with the airway responsiveness to histamine before and after allergen challenge with extracts of house dust mite, grass pollen, or cat. All subjects inhaled doubling increments of histamine and MBS until the concentration provoking a 20% fall in forced expiratory volume in one second (PC20) was reached before and three hours after allergen challenge. Twelve of the subjects had additional challenges at 24 hours after the allergen. RESULTS: Following allergen challenge all subjects showed an early response and 14 also had a late asthmatic response. For histamine there was a significant increase in airway responsiveness at both three and 24 hours compared with values before the allergen (0.89 (0.25) and 1.53 (0.52) doubling dose changes, respectively). In contrast, airway responsiveness to MBS was unaltered by allergen challenge (0.29 (0.27) and -0.33 (0.28) doubling dose changes compared with pre-allergen values at three and 24 hours, respectively). CONCLUSION: These data suggest that activation of airway sensory nerves is unlikely to contribute to the increase in airway responsiveness following inhalation of allergen. The previously observed allergen induced increase in airway responsiveness to bradykinin and AMP may involve non-neural pathways.