Investigation into the etiology of obstructive sleep apnea is beginning to focus increasing attention on upper airway anatomy and physiology (patency and resistance). Before conclusions concerning upper airway resistance in these patients can be made, the normal range of supraglottic and, more specifically, pharyngeal resistance needs to be better defined. We measured supraglottic and pharyngeal resistances during nasal breathing in a normal population of 35 men and women. Our technique measured epiglottic pressure with a balloon-tipped catheter, choanal pressure using anterior rhinometry, and flow with a sealed face mask and pneumotachograph. Resistance was measured at a flow rate of 300 ml/s during inspiration. Men had a mean pharyngeal resistance (choanae to epiglottis) of 4.6 +/- 0.8 (SE) cmH2O X l-1 X s, whereas women demonstrated a significantly (P less than 0.01) lower value, 2.3 +/- 0.3 cmH2O X l-1 X s. Supraglottic resistance was also higher in men (P = 0.01). Age (r = 0.73, P less than 0.01) correlated closely with pharyngeal resistance in men, but no such correlations could be found in women. These results may have implications in the epidemiology of obstructive sleep apnea.