N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is rapidly de-acetylated in vivo to cysteine (CYSH), a precursor of glutathione (GSH) which is an antioxidant in cells and body fluids. We investigated the effect of oral administration of N-acetyl cysteine for 5 days on the spontaneous and stimulated generation of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and superoxide anion (O2-) from human and rat phagocytic leucocytes. Alveolar macrophages (AM) were obtained by bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) in control rats and rats given NAC in their drinking water. Neutrophils (PMNL) were harvested from whole blood in normal nonsmoking volunteers before and after NAC was given by mouth. The stimulated release of H2O2 and O2 from both rat AM and human PMN was not changed by administration of NAC. However, a small but significant increase was observed in both the spontaneous generation of O2- from rat AM and the spontaneous generation of H2O2 from human PMNL. Administration of NAC significantly increased cysteine levels in human plasma and rat BAL, but the levels in human PMNL and rat AM after NAC did not differ from control levels. GSH levels were not altered significantly by NAC.