We investigate retrospectively the efficacy of self-expandable metallic stents (SEMS) for severe respiratory distress (SRD) in patients with central airway obstruction (CAO). Thirty three patients with CAO were treated with SEMS using fiberoptic bronchoscopy method. We found an intraluminal obstruction present in 7, extraluminal compression in 10, and combined stenosis in 16 cases. Tumor infiltration occupied more than 90% of the endoluminal diameter in 21, 70% in 9, and 50% in 3 cases. Obstruction was caused by primary cancer of lung in 23, thyroid in 5, and esophagus in 5 patients. Up to 3 stents per patient were placed. Double stenting (esophagus and trachea) was required in five patients. All patients exhibited symptomatic and arterial blood gas improvement. The mean follow-up was 65 (5 to 752) days. SEMS are useful for the treatment of SRD caused by CAO. The overall effect is related to the degree of tumor progression itself.