To determine a possible mechanism for the association between gastroesophageal reflux and obstructive pulmonary disease, we quantitatively compared the short latent airway response after acid infusion into the trachea or esophagus in 13 anesthetized adult cats. Total lung resistance was calculated from synchronous measurements of air flow and intrapleural pressure differences from those at end expiratory level. Tracheal infusion of as little as 0.05 ml of 0.2 N HCl evoked an average 4.65-fold increase in total lung resistance from baseline in all animals tested (p less than 0.005). Intratracheal saline had no effect. The response to intratracheal acid infusion was rapidly adapting, pH dependent, and vagally mediated. Infusion of a much larger volume of 10 ml of 0.2 N HCl into the esophagus produced an average 1.47-fold increase in total lung resistance from baseline (p less than 0.05). No change was seen with intraesophageal saline. In contrast to intratracheal acid infusion, a clearly significant increase in resistance was seen in only 8 of 13 animals tested after intraesophageal acidification. When it occurred, the response was sustained for at least 60 s after acid infusion. The magnitude of the response was not augmented by the presence of severe esophagitis. These studies strengthen the concept that reflex pathways in the trachea and esophagus may explain a causal relationship between gastroesophageal reflux and obstructive pulmonary diseases. The results support the view that microaspiration into the trachea is a much more likely mechanism for bronchospasm associated with gastroesophageal reflux than simple acid reflux into the esophagus.