The role of nitric oxide (NO) formed by inducible NO synthase (iNOS), superoxide and the lipopolysaccharide from luminal bacteria in non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug-induced intestinal injury was investigated in the rat. Administration (s.c. or p.o.) of indomethacin (10 mg kg(-1)), flurbiprofen (40 mg kg(-1)) or diclofenac (40 mg kg(-1)) increased the vascular leakage of radiolabelled albumin in the jejunum, determined after 24 h, associated with the induction of iNOS, assessed by the conversion of radiolabelled L-arginine. Pre-treatment with ampicillin (200 mg kg(-1) day(-1), p.o.), metronidazole (200 mg kg(-1) day(-1), p.o.), or polymixin B (15 mg kg(-1) day(-1), s.c.), inhibited indomethacin-induced lesion formation, reduced microvascular leakage and prevented the expression of iNOS activity. Administration of the highly selective iNOS inhibitor, GW273629 ((R)-2-amino-4,4-dioxo-6(1-iminioethylamino)-4-thiahexanoic acid; 5 mg kg(-1), s.c.), 18 h after indomethacin, likewise prevented the intestinal lesions and attenuated the microvascular leakage. Superoxide dismutase conjugated with polyethylene glycol (3000 U kg(-1), i.v.), inhibited the indomethacin-induced lesions and microvascular leakage, but not the expression of iNOS activity. These findings suggest that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs compromise mucosal integrity, leading to luminal bacterial translocation. This provokes iNOS induction, leading to microvascular injury involving both NO and superoxide.