To determine whether nicotine is involved in evoking the irritant effects of cigarette smoke in airways, we studied the responses to inhalation of a single puff (30 ml) of three types of smoke (high nicotine, low nicotine, and gas phase) in healthy male nonsmokers. After the upper airways were locally anesthetized, the subjects, breathing through a mouthpiece, were instructed to signal the detection and the intensity of airway irritation with a push-button device. Inhalation of high-nicotine smoke consistently triggered an intense airway irritation in the lower neck and upper chest region; the total number of push-button signals generated in the first 5 s was 6.61 +/- 0.87 (mean +/- SE, n = 12), with a detection latency of 0.93 +/- 0.11 s. By contrast, inhalation of low-nicotine and gas phase smoke either was not detected or caused only very mild irritation (0.89 +/- 0.4 and 0.36 +/- 0.22, respectively). In addition, the intensity of smoke-induced airway irritation was markedly reduced after premedication with aerosolized hexamethonium, a nicotinic receptor antagonist (P < 0.01, n = 8). Furthermore, inhalation of nicotine aerosol also immediately evoked intense airway irritation and coughs (n = 5). Thus we conclude that the airway irritation evoked by inhaling cigarette smoke results from an activation of sensory endings located in the central airways and nicotine is the primary agent responsible for this action.