To determine whether collateral ventilation (defined as the ventilation of alveolar structures through passages or channels that bypass the normal airways) changes with age or emphysema, we compared the mechanics of collateral ventilation in seven young normal subjects, three old normal subjects and five patients with emphysema. In supine normal subjects at the end of a quiet expiration, resistance to airflow was greater through collateral channels than through bronchi and bronchioles. In emphysema, airways resistance could exceed collateral resistance, causing air to flow preferentially through collateral pathways. We conclude that high collateral resistance minimizes collateral airflow in supine normal subjects. When peripheral airways become obstructed or obliterated in emphysema, collateral channels may provide for more even distribution of ventilation.