Carbon dioxide is a commonly employed irritant test compound in nasal chemesthetic studies because it is essentially free of olfactory stimulus properties. CO(2) is thought to act via hydration to H(2)CO(3) and dissociation to H(+) in nasal mucus, with resulting activation of acid sensors. However, transient changes in nasal mucosal pH have not been documented during CO(2) stimulation in humans. We placed a small pH probe on the floor of the right anterior nasal cavity during CO(2) stimulation in eight human subjects with historically high (>30%) and low (< or =20%) CO(2) detection thresholds. Three second pulses of CO(2) (15-45% v/v) paired with air in random order (12-15 s inter-stimulus interval; 60 s inter-trial interval) were administered by nasal cannula at 5 l/min. in an ascending series. For each subject, both a CO(2) detection threshold and suprathreshold psychophysical ratings [psi; labeled magnitude scale] were generated. All subjects showed phasic drops in pH associated with CO(2) stimulation (DeltapH). For all subjects combined, a positive correlation was apparent between applied [CO(2)] and both DeltapH and psi, as well as between DeltapH and psi themselves (P < 0.0001 for each comparison). Subjects with historically low CO(2) thresholds showed steeper dose-response curves for psi as a function of both applied [CO(2)] and DeltapH, but not for DeltapH as a function of applied [CO(2)]. For the six of eight subjects with measurable pH changes at threshold, DeltapH was positively related to log [CO(2) threshold] (P < 0.01). These data imply that variability in CO(2) detection thresholds and suprathreshold rating may derive from intrinsic differences in neural sensitivity, rather than differences in stimulus activation to hydrogen ion.