To partition the central and peripheral airway resistance in awake humans, a catheter-tipped micromanometer sensing lateral pressure of the airway was wedged into the right lower lobe of a 3-mm-ID bronchus in 5 normal subjects, 7 patients with chronic bronchitis, 8 patients with emphysema, and 20 patients with bronchial asthma. We simultaneously measured mouth flow, transpulmonary pressure, and intra-airway lateral pressure during quiet tidal breathing. Total pulmonary resistance (RL) was calculated from transpulmonary pressure and mouth flow and central airway resistance (Rc) from intra-airway lateral pressure and mouth flow. Peripheral airway resistance (Rp) was obtained by the subtraction of Rc from RL. The technique permitted identification of the site of airway resistance changes. In normal subjects, RL was 3.2 +/- 0.2 (SE) cmH2O.l-1.s and the ratio of Rp to RL was 0.24 during inspiration. Patients with bronchial asthma without airflow obstruction showed values of Rc and Rp similar to those of normal subjects. Although Rc showed a tendency to increase, only Rp significantly increased in those patients with bronchial asthma with airflow obstruction and patients with chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The ratio of Rp to RL significantly increased in three groups of patients with airflow obstruction (P less than 0.01). These observations suggest that peripheral airways are the predominant site of airflow obstruction, irrespective of the different pathogenesis of chronic airflow obstruction.