Respiratory heat loss has been proposed as a mechanism of exercise induced asthma. Whether the predominant stimulus is airway drying or cooling remains unclear. We have measured changes in FEV1 after isocapnic cold air hyperventilation (CAH) (-23.4 degrees (SD 0.43 degrees) C) and dry ambient air hyperventilation (AAH) (18.7 degrees (0.52 degrees)C) in seven asthmatic patients (mean age 31 (SD 9) years and baseline FEV1 3.2(0.9)1) and in seven normal subjects (age 28(6) years and FEV1 3.6(0.7)1). The inspired water content in both cases was 0.3 mg/l air. The rate of respiratory heat exchange per breath was calculated in watts (W) with microcomputer based equipment. Cold air hyperventilation caused a fall in FEV1 almost twice that of ambient air hyperventilation at each level of ventilation: CAH v AAH (% fall) 8.0 (5.1) v 3.9 (4.0) at 15 l/min, 11.6 (7.8) v 7.0 (4.4) at 30 l/min, and 20.7 (10.9) v 12.4 (6.3) at 60 l/min. Identical latent heat loss (evaporative drying) was imposed on the airway during the two challenges. Sensible heat loss (convective cooling) in cold air hyperventilation was 41 W at 15 l/min, 63 W at 30 l/min, and 114 W at 60 l/min; whereas in ambient air hyperventilation the loss was 6, 13, and 23 W respectively. It is concluded that the rate of cooling of the upper airway is the predominant stimulus in hyperventilation induced asthma.