To determine whether the intensity of dyspnea at a given level of respiratory motor output differs between bronchoconstriction and the presence of an external resistance, we compared the sensation of difficulty in breathing during isocapnic voluntary hyperventilation in six normal subjects. An external resistance of 1.9 cmH2O.1-1.s was applied during both inspiration and expiration. To induce bronchoconstriction, histamine aerosol (5 mg/ml) was inhaled until airway resistance (Raw) increased to a level approximately equal to the subject's control Raw plus the added external resistance. To clarify the role of vagal afferents on the genesis of dyspnea during both forms of obstruction to airflow, the effect of airway anesthesia by lidocaine aerosol inhalation was also examined after histamine and during external resistive loading. The sensation of difficulty in breathing was rated at 30-s intervals on a visual analog scale during isocapnic voluntary hyperpnea, in which the subjects were asked to copy an oscilloscope volume trace obtained previously during progressive hypercapnia. Histamine inhalation significantly increased the intensity of the dyspneic sensation over the equivalent external resistive load at the same levels of ventilation and occlusion pressure during voluntary hyperpnea. Inhaled lidocaine decreased the sensation of dyspnea during bronchoconstriction with no change in Raw, but it did not significantly change the sensation during external resistive loading. These results suggest that afferent vagal activity plays a role in the genesis of dyspnea during bronchoconstriction.