Ethane is produced from lipid peroxidation and can be measured in the exhaled air. Cystic fibrosis (CF) is characterized by recurrent respiratory infections, release of reactive oxygen species by inflammatory cells, and increased oxidative stress. We measured exhaled ethane in 23 CF subjects (mean age +/- SEM, 21 +/- 4 yr; 10 male, FEV(1) 62 +/- 4%) and compared it with two other noninvasive markers of oxidative stress and inflammation, carbon monoxide (CO) and nitric oxide (NO). Exhaled ethane was collected during a flow and pressure-controlled exhalation into a reservoir discarding dead space air contaminated with ambient air. A sample (2 ml) of the expired air was analyzed by chromatography. Ethane levels were elevated in patients not on steroids (n = 13, 1.99 +/- 0.20 ppb) compared with steroid-treated patients (n = 10, 0.67 +/- 0.09 ppb, p < 0.01) and with 14 nonsmoking control (8 men, age 33 +/- 2.8 yr) subjects (0.82 +/- 0.40 ppb, p < 0.05). In patients not on steroid treatment ethane was correlated to airway obstruction as assessed by the ratio of residual volume to total lung capacity (RV/ TLC) (r = 0. 66, p < 0.05) and exhaled CO (r = 0.65, p < 0.05). CO concentrations were also higher in patients not on steroid treatment (3.4 +/- 0.2 ppm) than in steroid-treated patients (2.6 +/- 0.1 ppm, p < 0.05), whereas NO concentrations were not influenced by steroid treatment (3.0 +/- 0.4 ppm and 2.9 +/- 0.2 ppm, p > 0.05) and were lower than in a control group (7.0 +/- 0.4 ppb, p < 0.05). Exhaled ethane is elevated in CF, reduced in steroid-treated patients and correlates with CO and RV/TLC; therefore, it may be a useful noninvasive marker of oxidative stress.