A major task of the intestine is to form a defensive barrier to prevent absorption of damaging substances from the external environment. This protective function of the intestinal mucosa is called permeability. Clinicians can use inert, nonmetabolized sugars such as mannitol, rhamnose, or lactulose to measure the permeability barrier or the degree of leakiness of the intestinal mucosa. Ample evidence indicates that permeability is increased in most patients with Crohn's disease and in 10% to 20% of their clinically healthy relatives. The abnormal leakiness of the mucosa in Crohn's patients and their relatives can be greatly amplified by aspirin preadministration. Permeability measurements in Crohn's patients reflect the activity, extent, and distribution of the disease and may allow us to predict the likelihood of recurrence after surgery or medically induced remission. Permeability is also increased in celiac disease and by trauma, burns, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The major determinant of the rate of intestinal permeability is the opening or closure of the tight junctions between enterocytes in the paracellular space. As we broaden our understanding of the mechanisms and agents that control the degree of leakiness of the tight junctions, we will be increasingly able to use permeability measurements to study the etiology and pathogenesis of various disorders and to design or monitor therapies for their management.