These experiments were done to learn whether Mycoplasma pulmonis infections of the respiratory tract of rats can potentiate "neurogenic inflammation" and whether this potentiation is amplified by factors that exacerbate the infections. Pathogen-free F344 rats were inoculated intranasally with M. pulmonis or with sterile culture medium and then lived for 4 wk in an ammonia-free atmosphere or in air containing ammonia (100 parts per million). Neurogenic inflammation was evoked by an intravenous injection of capsaicin, and 5 min later the magnitude of the response was quantified by measuring the amount of extravasation of two tracers, Monastral blue pigment and Evans blue dye. We found that vascular permeability in the tracheas of all rats was normal in the absence of capsaicin. However, a 75-micrograms/kg dose of capsaicin, which caused almost no extravasation of Evans blue in the tracheas of pathogen-free controls (17 +/- 3 ng/mg; mean +/- SE), produced extensive extravasation in the infected rats (135 +/- 18 ng/mg; P less than 0.001). Similarly, this dose of capsaicin produced 30 times as much Monastral blue extravasation in the infected rats (area density = 47 +/- 8% of surface area) as it did in the pathogen-free rats (1.6 +/- 0.5%; P less than 0.001), a difference that resulted from increases in the number of Monastral blue-labeled postcapillary venules and in the amount of labeling per venule. Exposure of the infected rats to ammonia exacerbated the infections, further increased the number of Monastral blue-labeled vessels and the amount of labeling per vessel, and made the rats so sensitive to capsaicin that a normally tolerable dose of 150 micrograms/kg i.v. caused fatal apnea. Ammonia did not have these effects in pathogen-free rats. We conclude that M. pulmonis infections of the airway mucosa cause a potent, long-lasting potentiation of neurogenic inflammation, which results in part from an increase in the number and responsiveness of mediator-sensitive postcapillary venules. These changes can be amplified by environmental factors such as ammonia which exacerbate the infections.