It has been suggested that in patients with adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), intrinsic positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEPi) is generated by a disproportionate increase in expiratory flow resistance. Using the negative expiratory pressure (NEP) technique, we assessed whether expiratory flow limitation (EFL) and PEEPi were present at zero PEEP in 10 semirecumbent, mechanically ventilated ARDS patients. Because bronchodilators may decrease airway resistance, we also investigated the effect of nebulized salbutamol on EFL, PEEPi, and respiratory mechanics in these patients, and in seven patients we measured the latter variables in the supine position as well. In the semirecumbent position, eight of the 10 ARDS patients exhibited tidal EFL, ranging from 5 to 37% of the control tidal volume (VT), whereas PEEPi was present in all 10 subjects, ranging from 0.4 cm H(2)O to 7.7 cm H(2)O. The onset of EFL was heralded by a distinct inflection point on the expiratory flow-volume curve, which probably reflected small-airway closure. Administration of salbutamol had no statistically significant effect on PEEPi, EFL (as %VT), or respiratory mechanics. EFL (%VT) and PEEPi were significantly higher in the supine position than in the semirecumbent position, whereas the other respiratory variables did not change. Our results suggest that in the absence of externally applied PEEP, most ARDS patients exhibit EFL associated with small-airway closure and a concomitant PEEPi.