The occurrence and distribution of calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) in the lower airways was studied by means of immunohistochemistry and radioimmunoassay (RIA) in combination with high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). CGRP-like immunoreactivity (-LI) was observed in nerves from the epiglottis down to peripheral bronchi in rat, cat and guinea pig and also in human bronchi. Double staining revealed colocalization of CGRP-LI and substance P (SP)-LI in cell bodies of nodose and jugular ganglia as well as in axons and nerve terminals of the airways. Systemic capsaicin pretreatment induced a marked loss of the CGRP- and SP-immunoreactive (-IR) nerves in the lower airways. CGRP-IR was also present in epithelial endocrine cells and neuroepithelial bodies. The content of CGRP-LI as measured with RIA in guinea pig bronchi was significantly lower after capsaicin pretreatment. Analysis of human bronchial extracts revealed that CGRP-LI coeluted with synthetic human CGRP on HPLC. In the isolated perfused guinea pig lung capsaicin exposure caused overflow of CGRP-LI suggesting release from peripheral branches of sensory nerves. Both in vivo experiments in the guinea pig measuring insufflation pressure as well as in vitro studies on isolated guinea pig and human bronchi showed that whereas tachykinins contracted bronchial smooth muscle no contractile or relaxing effect was elicited by human or rat CGRP. However, CGRP caused relaxation of serotonin precontracted guinea pig and human pulmonary arteries. In conclusion, the presence and release of CGRP-LI from capsaicin sensitive nerves in the lower airways adds another possible mediator, in addition to tachykinins, of vascular reactions upon sensory nerve irritation.