The mechanisms of virus-induced airway hyperresponsiveness in asthma and allergy and the failure of host defence in patients suffering from secondary airway infections are still largely unknown. The aim of this study was to examine whether the presence of allergic rhinitis or susceptibility to recurrent sinusitis affects the structural and cellular changes in nasal mucosa during natural colds and convalescence. We compared the mucosal changes in biopsy samples during acute natural colds (days 2–4 of illness) and convalescence (3 weeks later) in patients with allergic rhinitis (n = 9), patients with susceptibility to sinusitis (n = 19) and healthy controls (n = 20). We saw similarly increased numbers of mucosal T and B lymphocytes and mast cells and increased vascular density during the acute colds compared to convalescence in all the three groups. The allergic subjects had elevated levels of eosinophils in the acute phase (P = 0·03), and the allergic and sinusitis-prone subjects had elevated levels of epithelial T cells (P = 0·04) and low levels of mast cells (P = 0·005) in convalescence compared to the control group. The sinusitis-prone subjects lacked intraepithelial cytotoxic cells in convalescence. In the allergic subjects, the reticular basement membrane was thicker in the acute phase compared to the convalescence (P = 0·05). These results suggest that various cells of the airways, including inflammatory and structural cells, are involved during viral respiratory infections in subjects with allergic rhinitis. The small numbers of mast cells and cytotoxic lymphocytes in the sinusitis-prone subjects may be related to their susceptibility to bacterial complications.