Episodic hypoxia causes repetitive inspiratory activation that induces a form of respiratory plasticity termed long-term facilitation (LTF). While LTF is a function of the hypoxic exposures and inspiratory activation, their relative importance in evoking LTF is unknown. The aims of this study were to: (1) dissociate the relative roles played by episodic hypoxia and respiratory activation in LTF; and (2) determine whether the magnitude of LTF varies as a function of hypoxic intensity. We did this by examining the effects of episodic hypoxia in postnatal rats (15-25 days old), which unlike adult rats exhibit a prominent hypoxia-induced respiratory depression. We quantified inspiratory phrenic nerve activity generated by the in situ working-heart brainstem before, during and for 60 min after episodic hypoxia. We demonstrate that episodic hypoxia evokes LTF despite the fact that it potently suppresses inspiratory activity during individual hypoxic exposures (P < 0.05). Specifically, we show that after episodic hypoxia (three 5 min periods of 10% O2) respiratory frequency increased to 40 +/- 3.3% above baseline values over the next 60 min (P < 0.001). Continuous hypoxia (15 min of 10% O2) had no lasting effects on respiratory frequency (P > 0.05). To determine if LTF magnitude was affected by hypoxic intensity, the episodic hypoxia protocol was repeated under three different O2 tensions. We demonstrate that the magnitude and time course of LTF depend on hypoxic severity, with more intense hypoxia inducing a more potent degree of LTF. We conclude that inspiratory activation is not required for LTF induction, and that hypoxia per se is the physiological stimulus for eliciting hypoxia-induced respiratory LTF.