Seventeen infants were treated with inhaled nitric oxide for critical pulmonary artery hypertension after operations for congenital heart defects. In all 17 patients conventional medical therapy consisting of hyperventilation, deep sedation/analgesia, and correction of metabolic acidosis had failed. All children were monitored with a transthoracic pulmonary artery catheter inserted at operation. Pulmonary artery hypertension was defined as an acute rise in pulmonary pressure associated with a decrease in oxygen arterial or venous saturation. After failure of conventional medical therapy, 20 ppm of inhaled nitric oxide was administered to the patient. In all patients the pulmonary pressures decreased (mean pulmonary arterial pressure decreased by -34% +/- 21%) without significant change in systemic arterial pressure, whereas the oxygen arterial saturation and oxygen venous saturation increased by 9.7% +/- 12% and 37% +/- 28%, respectively. Fifteen children were discharged from the intensive care unit at 10 +/- 6 days (range 3 to 26 days) and two died. This study demonstrates that inhaled nitric oxide exerts a selective pulmonary vasodilation without decreasing systemic arterial pressure in children with congenital heart disease. The increased values of mixed venous oxygen saturation and urinary output suggest that this selective lowering of pulmonary vascular resistance improved the overall hemodynamics. The potential toxic effects of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide necessitate careful consideration of the risks and benefits of inhaled nitric oxide therapy.