Patients with breathlessness commonly describe subjective relief when seated near an open window or in front of a fan. Previous studies suggest that a flow of air or application of cold solutions to the face, nasal mucosa, or pharynx may alter ventilation. We hypothesized that a flow of cold air directed against the cheek would reduce the sensation of breathlessness associated with loaded breathing. Sixteen subjects breathed on a device with an inspiratory resistive load (63 cm H2O/L/s) while PCO2 was maintained at 55 torr for 5 min. All studies were performed 4 times with each subject, twice with cold air directed against the cheek (4 degrees to 10 degrees C, 4 km/h) and twice with no flow on the subject. Subjects were asked to rate their breathlessness using a modified Borg scale. Cold air directed on the face reduced breathlessness induced by an inspiratory resistive load and hypercapnia (6.2 +/- 1.7 Borg scale units with no flow, 5.1 +/- 1.7 with cold air; p less than 0.002) without causing a significant reduction in ventilation. This effect was not observed when cold air was directed to the leg and does not appear to be associated with a reduction in the ventilatory response to hypercapnia or with initiation of the diving reflex. We conclude that cold air directed against the cheek significantly reduces dyspnea associated with the combination of hypercapnia and an inspiratory resistive load.