Eleven male volunteers were studied to compare the airway irritation produced by the four anaesthetic agents: halothane, enflurane, isoflurane and sevoflurane at two concentrations, equivalent to one and two MAC. Tidal volume, respiratory frequency and functional residual capacity changes induced by 15 sec inhalation of the anaesthetics were measured using respiratory inductive plethysmograph. Appearance of the cough reflex was also observed. The order of subjective airway irritation was evaluated by the volunteers. Inhalation of the anaesthetic agents induced a decrease in tidal volume, increase in respiratory frequency and decrease in functional residual capacity. Significant changes were considered to have occurred if tidal volume and respiratory frequency changed by more than 30% from the resting values for at least ten seconds, or if functional residual capacity changed by more than 30% of the value at resting tidal volume, for at least ten seconds. Each change was induced most frequently by isoflurane followed by enflurane, halothane and, least frequently, by sevoflurane. The orders of appearance of the cough reflex and of subjective airway irritation were similar. Sevoflurane did not elicit a cough reflex. It is concluded that sevoflurane was the least irritant anaesthetic and is considered to be the most suitable for inhalational induction of anaesthesia.