The role of exercise-induced oxidative stress in the reduced quadriceps endurance of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients has never been shown. We conducted a randomized, double-blind, and crossover study in which nine severe patients performed localized dynamic quadriceps endurance tests at 40% of maximal strength after oral treatment with the antioxidant, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), and placebo. Venous blood was sampled before, immediately after exercise, and 6 hours later. Endurance time improved by 25% after NAC treatment compared with placebo (p < 0.05). Superoxide anion (oxidant) release by stimulated phagocytes decreased after treatment (p < 0.05). No change in the antioxidant system was observed. Lipid peroxidation, an index of oxidative stress, was significantly increased 6 hours after exercise in the placebo condition (p < 0.05) but not after treatment. Advanced oxidized protein products, another index of oxidative stress, were also increased 6 hours after exercise by 139 +/- 27% in the placebo condition but only by 54 +/- 19% after treatment (p < 0.05). This study shows that NAC treatment in COPD reduced basal disturbance in the prooxidant system, improved endurance time, and prevented exercise-induced oxidative stress. Oxidative stress thus seems to be implicated in the reduced quadriceps endurance of patients with COPD.