BACKGROUND: Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) in exhaled air condensate is elevated in inflammatory disorders of the lower respiratory tract. It is unknown whether viral colds contribute to exhaled H2O2. AIM: To assess exhaled H2O2 during and after a common cold. METHODS: We examined H2O2 in the breath condensate of 20 normal subjects with acute symptoms of a common cold and after recovery 2 weeks later and, similarly, in 10 subjects without infection. H2O2 was measured with a fluorimetric assay. RESULTS: At the time of infection exhaled H2O2 (median, ranges) was 0.20 microM (0.03-1.2 microM), and this decreased to 0.09 microM (< 0.01-0.40 microM) after recovery (p = 0.006). There was no significant difference in lung function (forced vital capacity and forced expiratory volume in 1 sec) during and after colds. In the controls, exhaled H2O2 did not change over a 2-week period. CONCLUSIONS: H2O2 in exhaled air condensate is elevated during a common cold, and returns to normal within 2 weeks of recovery in healthy subjects. Hence, symptomatic upper respiratory tract infection may act as a confounder in studies of H2O2 as a marker of chronic lower airway inflammation.