Early and late phase reactions have been observed in asthma; the late phase reaction is characterized by accumulation of inflammatory cells such as neutrophils. Activated neutrophils degranulate and assemble an active NADPH oxidase, which generates superoxide anion (O2-), reactions that have been implicated in lung tissue damage. Preincubation of neutrophils with the asthma drug cromolyn sodium selectively inhibited FMLP (10(-7) M) and PMA (0.1 microgram/ml) elicited O2- generation but not degranulation. To further characterize the mechanism of this inhibition we examined the effect of cromolyn on the NADPH oxidase complex and the signaling pathways for its assembly. Ca2+ mobilization and activation of protein kinase C have been implicated as signals for activation of the NADPH oxidase. Ca2+ mobilization triggered by FMLP was significantly decreased by 21.2% in cromolyn-treated cells. In contrast, cromolyn did not interfere with translocation or activity of protein kinase C. Membranes prepared from neutrophils stimulated with 0.5 microgram/ml PMA generated O2-, indicating assembly of an active NADPH oxidase; cromolyn did not inhibit this membrane-associated, preassembled oxidase. In contrast, preincubation of neutrophils with 100 microM cromolyn before addition of PMA decreased the capacity of the membranes to generate O2- by 57.3%. These results indicate that cromolyn inhibited the assembly of an active NADPH oxidase. The efficacy of cromolyn may be associated with inhibition of assembly of an active NADPH oxidase in the neutrophil and prevention of oxygen radical-induced tissue damage.