Inhalation of nitric oxide (NO), an endogenous vasodilator, was recently described to reduce pulmonary vascular resistance, and to improve arterial oxygenation by selective vasodilation of ventilated areas in patients with adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). We describe the time-course and dose-response of initial short-term NO inhalation in 12 patients with ARDS. Enhanced oxygenation was achieved within 1-2 min after starting NO inhalation; after inhalation, baseline conditions were re-achieved within 5-8 min. Effective doses for improvement of oxygenation [baseline: PaO2 = 10.2 +/- 2.5 KPa (76.4 +/- 18.7 mmHg)] were low: ED50 was about 100 ppb--a concentration similar to the atmosphere. NO doses of more than 10 ppm [10 ppm NO: PaO2 = 17.3 +/- 3.3 KPa (129.4 +/- 25.1 mmHg)] re-worsen the arterial oxygenation. The ED50 for reduction of mean pulmonary artery pressure was 2-3 ppm. This indicates that inhalation of NO for improvement of oxygenation in severe ARDS should be performed using lower doses, with lower risk of toxic side effects.