1. The aim of the present study was to perform an evolutionary analysis of the morphometrical, biochemical and functional parameters of centriacinar emphysema induced by cadmium chloride (CdCl2) in rats and to determine the effects of concomitant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) administration. 2. Male Wistar rats were instilled orotracheally with either CdCl2 (n = 24) or saline (n = 24). One group of rats, consisting of both CdCl2- and saline-treated rats, was fed a normal diet (n = 24), whereas the other group received NAC (n = 24). 3. Changes in inspiratory capacity (IC), lung compliance (CL), expiratory flow at 75% (F75), forced vital capacity (FVC) and hydroxyproline content were assessed 2, 8, 21 and 45 days after instillation. Polymorphonuclear cells were evaluated 2 and 8 days after instillation and the mean linear intercept (Lm) was determined at 21 and 45 days. 4. Over time, CdCl2 instillation causes several changes that are bound up with centriacinar emphysema. The concomitant administration of NAC to CdCl2-treated rats partially reversed Lm at 21 days compared with CdCl2 alone (115 +/- 2 vs 127 +/- 2, respectively; P < 0.05). However, 45 days after instillation, NAC improved lung function in CdCl2-treated rats compared with that in the saline-treated control group (IC 14.64 vs 15.25, respectively (P = 0.054); FVC 16.94 vs 16.28, respectively (P = 0.052), F75 31.41 vs 32.48, respectively (P = 0.062)). In addition, 45 days after instillation, NAC reduced lung collagen content in both the saline-treated control (100 vs 81% alone and in the presence of NAC, respectively) and CdCL2-treated groups (213 vs 161% alone and in the presence of NAC, respectively). In addition, although the results were not significant, NAC tended to reduce Lm and enhance CL in NAC + CdCl2-treated rats. 5. In conclusion, NAC partially improved emphysematous changes and reduced collagen deposition, which diminished the CdCl2-induced fibrotic component of centriacinar emphysema.