Renal prostaglandin (PG) synthesis is mediated by cyclooxygenase-1 and -2 (COX1 and COX2). After dehydration, the maintenance of normal renal function becomes particularly dependent upon PG synthesis. The present studies were designed to examine the potential link between medullary COX1 and COX2 expression in hypertonic stress. In response to water deprivation, COX2, but not COX1, mRNA levels increase significantly in the renal medulla, specifically in renal medullary interstitial cells (RMICs). Water deprivation also increases renal NF-kappaB-driven reporter expression in transgenic mice. NF-kappaB activity and COX2 expression could be induced in cultured RMICs with hypertonic sodium chloride and mannitol, but not urea. RMIC COX2 expression was also induced by driving NF-kappaB activation with a constitutively active IkappaB kinase alpha (IKKalpha). Conversely, introduction of a dominant-negative IkappaB mutant reduced COX2 expression after hypertonicity or IKKalpha induction. RMICs failed to survive hypertonicity when COX2 was downregulated using a COX2-selective antisense or blocked with the selective nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) SC58236, reagents that did not affect cell survival in isotonic media. In rabbits treated with SC58236, water deprivation induced apoptosis of medullary interstitial cells in the renal papilla. These results demonstrate that water deprivation and hypertonicity activate NF-kappaB. The consequent increase in COX2 expression favors RMIC survival in hypertonic conditions. Inhibition of RMIC COX2 could contribute to NSAID-induced papillary injury.