Studies of the hemodynamic effects of nasal continuous positive airway pressure (n-CPAP) in normal subjects have had conflicting results. The largest study (n = 19) found no effect of up to 15 cm H2O on heart rate (HR), cardiac stroke volume (SV), or cardiac index. We hypothesized that n-CPAP, by increasing intrathoracic pressure, should decrease SV and cardiac output (CO) in a dose-dependent fashion in normal subjects. We also hypothesized that mouth position, i.e., open or closed, could affect intrathoracic pressure and thus SV and CO. Six normal subjects were tested with four levels of CPAP (5, 10, 15, and 20 cm H2O) under three mask conditions-face mask and nasal mask with the mouth open (mo) or with the mouth closed (mc). Noninvasive pulsed Doppler measurements of SV and HR were made under each condition. N-CPAP (mc) and face mask CPAP (f-CPAP) resulted in significant dose-dependent decreases of SV-24 +/- 5 ml (21%) and 33 +/- 5 ml (28%), respectively--from baseline to 20 cm H2O (p < 0.05). HR were unchanged and CO significantly decreased with n-CPAP(mc) and with f-CPAP, 1.6 +/- 0.38 L/min (23%) and 2.29 +/- 0.54 L/min (31%), respectively, from baseline to 20 cm H2O (p < 0.05). Esophageal pressure measurements verified increasing intrathoracic pressure with increasing levels of f-CPAP and n-CPAP (mc) but not with n-CPAP (mo). In conclusion, n-CPAP (mc) and f-CPAP resulted in significant and similar dose-dependent decreases in SV and CO.