We have examined the effects of low pH and the selectivity of the capsaicin antagonist capsazepine on single sensory fibres innervating the guinea-pig trachea in vitro, and on the whole isolated vagus nerve. Application of a pH 5 solution for 1 min to the exposed receptive fields of single fibres caused excitation of all C-fibres tested but had no effect on A delta-fibres. Capsazepine (1 microM) perfused onto the receptive field for 5 min produced a reversible inhibition of both low pH- and capsaicin (60 nM)-evoked firing of C-fibres. In contrast, capsazepine had no effect on responses of C-fibres to bradykinin (0.1 microM) or of A delta-fibres to hypertonic saline. Perfusion of tissues with zero-calcium Krebs' solution containing trypsin produced denudation of the epithelium. In these tissues responses to low pH and capsaicin were unchanged and, moreover, the inhibitory effect of capsazepine against low pH and capsaicin was maintained. C- and A delta-fibre responses to bradykinin and hypertonic saline were similarly unaffected by epithelium removal. Perfusion of the whole guinea-pig vagus nerve with capsaicin (0.3 microM) or pH 5 buffer caused depolarization. However, in this preparation prior perfusion with capsazepine (1 microM) abolished responses to capsaicin whilst low pH-evoked depolarization was unchanged. These data show that capsazepine is a specific antagonist of proton- and capsaicin-evoked activation of the peripheral endings of sensory nerves in the guinea-pig airways, and suggest the release by protons of an endogenous ligand for the capsaicin receptor that does not originate from the epithelium.