Edema is a major complication of vasodilatory therapy. However, the pathophysiologic mechanisms leading to the formation of vasodilator-mediated edema are insufficiently understood. The present study therefore examined the effect of the chronic administration of the potent arteriolar vasodilator, minoxidil (Mx), on extracellular fluid dynamics in rats. Extracellular volume (ECV), plasma volume (PV), interstitial fluid volume (IV), arterial pressure (AP), and interstitial fluid pressure (IP) were measured in rats treated for 10 days with Mx (1.5 mg/kg/day) and in control animals. In addition to a decreased AP, Mx-treated animals had diminished water and sodium excretion. ECV, PV, and IV and plasma renin concentration (PRC) were also increased in the Mx-treated rats. IP, which was subatmospheric in control rats (-2.6 +/- 0.04 mm Hg), was near zero in Mx-treated animals (-0.2 +/- 0.02 mm Hg, p less than 0.05). Saline ECV expansion (20 min, Ringer infusion, 3% body weight) or rat albumin injection (300 mg/2 ml) induced similar changes in the volume of the extracellular fluid compartments in both groups. However, changes in IP were blunted in Mx-treated rats. These results, therefore, show that Mx-treated rats have changes in interstitial fluid dynamics prior to any macroscopic evidence of edema accumulation. These alterations in the extracellular compartment dynamics may be a consequence of the sustained arteriolar vasodilation induced by Mx.