The effects of nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) on expiratory flow, arterial blood gas tensions, cardiovascular status, and dyspnea were studied in 21 patients with acute asthma. Therapy consisted of the following CPAP sequence: 30 minutes at 5 cm H2O, 20 minutes at 0 cm H2O, 30 minutes at 7.5 cm H2O, and 20 minutes at 0 cm H2O. Six control patients were fitted with a CPAP mask but given no positive-pressure therapy. Significant reductions in respiratory rate occurred from a baseline of 22.0 +/- 1.0 to 19.8 +/- 3.8 breaths/min at CPAP 5 cm H2O and to 19.4 +/- 4.3 breaths/min at CPAP 7.5 cm H2O (P < .05). No significant change occurred in forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1), heart rate, mean arterial blood pressure, or arterial blood gas tension with either level of CPAP. Dyspnea, as assessed by a breathlessness score, improved during CPAP therapy (P < .05). These levels of CPAP were tolerated without deleterious side effects. In comparison, the control group showed no change in heart rate, respiratory rate, or breathlessness score during the study period. These data show that application of CPAP in acute asthma reduces respiratory rate and dyspnea with no untoward effects on gas exchange, expiratory airflow, or hemodynamics.