If the nitric oxide (NO) diffusing capacity of the airways (DNO) is the quantity of NO diffusing per unit time into exhaled gas (q) divided by the difference between the concentration of NO in the airway wall (Cw) and lumen, then DNO and C(w) can be estimated from the relationship between exhaled NO concentration and expiratory flow. In 10 normal subjects and 25 asthmatic patients before and after treatment with inhaled beclomethasone, DNO averaged 6.8 +/- 1.2, 25.5 +/- 3.8, and 22.3 +/- 2.7 nl/s/ppb x 10(-3), respectively; C(w) averaged 149 +/- 31.9, 255.3 +/- 46.4, and 108.3 +/- 14.3 ppb, respectively; and DNOC(w) (the maximal from diffusion) averaged 1,020 +/- 157.5, 6,512 +/- 866, and 2,416 +/- 208.5 nl/s x 10(-3), respectively. DNO and DNOC(w) in the asthmatic subjects before and after steroids were greater than in normal subjects (p < 0.0001), but C(w) was not different. Within asthmatic subjects, steroids caused C(w) and DNOC(w) to fall (p < 0.0001), but DNO was unchanged. DNOC(w) after steroids, presumably reflecting maximal diffusion of constitutive NO, was positively correlated with methacholine PC(20) and FEV(1)/FVC before or after steroids. The increased DNO measured in asthmatic patients may reflect upregulation of nonadrenergic, noncholinergic, NO-producing nerves in airways in compensation for decreased sensitivity of airway smooth muscle to the relaxant effects of endogenous NO.