Nitric oxide (NO) is produced by a variety of cells within the respiratory tract, including inflammatory epithelial cells. NO has been detected in the exhaled air of normal human subjects, and its concentration is raised in asthmatic patients. To study whether exhaled NO arises from the respiratory tract, we administered a NO synthase (NOS) inhibitor, NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NMMA), by inhalation (490 mg) in a double-blind randomized manner in nine normal and six asthmatic subjects. Because exhaled NO may arise from an inducible isoform of NO synthase that may be inhibited by glucocorticosteroids, we also studied the effects of oral prednisolone (30 mg orally for 3 d) in seven normal and six asthmatic subjects in a separate double-blind crossover study with matched placebo. After nebulized L-NMMA, there was a significant fall in peak exhaled NO compared with saline control values, with a mean fall of 43.6 +/- 5.6% in normal subjects (p < 0.01) and of 39.7 +/- 6.5% (p < 0.01) in asthmatic subjects, which persisted for 4 h. There were no effects of L-NMMA inhalation on heart rate, blood pressure, or FEV1 in either normal or asthmatic patients. Administration of oral prednisolone (30 mg) resulted in a fall in exhaled NO concentrations in asthmatic subjects by 21.6 +/- 5.0% at 48 h (p < 0.01) but no significant change in normal subjects. These data suggest that NOS inhibitors may be safely given in normal and asthmatic patients and that the increased exhaled NO seen in asthmatic patients is likely to be caused by induction of inducible NOS.