Colonic epithelial secretion is an important host defense mechanism. We examined whether a bout of colitis would produce long-lasting changes in epithelial function that persisted after resolution of mucosal inflammation. Colitis was induced in rats with intracolonic trinitrobenzenesulfonic acid. Six weeks later, colonic damage and inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) mRNA expression and activity were measured. Segments of distal colon were mounted in Ussing chambers for measurement of permeability and responsiveness to secretory stimuli. Basal electrolyte transport parameters and permeability were not different from untreated controls. Despite normal macroscopic and histological appearance, secretory responses to electrical field stimulation (EFS), isobutylmethylxanthine (IBMX), and carbachol were significantly depressed (by 60-70%) relative to controls. iNOS mRNA expression and enzyme activity were significantly elevated. Dexamethasone reversed epithelial hyporesponsiveness and significantly reduced iNOS mRNA expression. A selective iNOS inhibitor normalized the secretory responses to EFS and IBMX but not to carbachol. These data suggest that ongoing synthesis of nitric oxide by iNOS contributes to chronic suppression of epithelial secretory function after episodes of colitis.