Increasing evidence points to an important role for nitric oxide in the regulation of pulmonary functions and in pulmonary disease. In the respiratory tract, sensory nerves, endothelial cells, vascular and airway smooth muscle cells, inflammatory cells and the airway epithelium are sources of nitric oxide. Different nitric oxide synthases have been isolated, cloned and sequenced. Functionally, there are constitutive and inducible forms of nitric oxide synthase. A number of cytokines have been shown to inhibit or induce the expression of the inducible nitric oxide synthase. In human airways, endogenous nitric oxide appears to account for the bronchodilator nonadrenergic and noncholinergic response. Nitric oxide-containing vasodilators, such as glyceryl trinitrate and sodium nitroprusside, induce relaxation of the isolated airway smooth muscle, activate guanylate cyclase and raise c-GMP levels. Nitric oxide (constitutive), produced by the epithelial layer, appears to be important in blunting the histamine contractile response of the airway tissue. Furthermore, tracheal relaxation by, e.g., bradykinin or potassium chloride, is mediated by the release of nitric oxide. The virus (Parainfluenza type 3)-induced airway hyperreactivity in guinea-pigs is correlated with a deficiency in endogenous constitutive nitric oxide production by the airways and can be blocked by low doses of L-arginine. In inflamed tissue, nitric oxide quickly reacts with superoxide anion, resulting in the formation of the toxic peroxynitrite which promotes lipid and sulfhydryl oxidation. Asthmatic patients have higher amounts of nitric oxide in the expired air, possibly due to the inflammation. This increased nitric oxide production can be inhibited by inhaled corticosteroids. The effect of inhaled nitric oxide on the lung function of asthmatic patients is variable. In contrast, low doses of inhaled nitric oxide are effective in reversing the pulmonary vasoconstriction. These results point to an important role for nitric oxide in modulating airway reactivity.