The effects of the administration of 100% oxygen on minute ventilation (VE) and arterial blood gases were studied in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease during acute respiratory failure. The administration of O2 resulted in an early decrease in VE, which averaged 18% +/- 2 SE of the control VE, and was due to a decrease in both tidal volume (VT) and respiratory frequency (f). This was followed by a slow increase in VE, such that after 15 min of breathing O2, VE rose to 93 +/- 6% of the control room air value, with both VT and f similar to control values. Despite the small difference between VE while breathing room air and that at the fifteenth minute of O2 inhalation, PaCO2 increased by 23 +/- 5 mmHg, and no significant correlation was found between the changes in VE and PaCO2. By the fifteenth minute of O2 inhalation the PaO2 averaged 225 +/- 23 mmHg, and it was concluded that despite the removal of the hypoxic stimulus of O2 inhalation, the activity of the respiratory muscles remained great enough to maintain VE at nearly the same degree as that while breathing room air. Consequently, the changes in PaCO2 after the administration of O2 were mainly due to increased inhomogeneity of VA/Q distribution within the lungs.