Highly reactive oxygen metabolites play an important role in inflammatory processes in the lung. Ambroxol (2-amino-3,5-dibromo-N-[trans-4- hydroxycyclohexyl]benzylamine) has been shown to reduce oxidant-mediated cell damage. However, the mechanism of this effect remains unclear. In order to evaluate oxidant scavenger function increasing concentrations of ambroxol (0-10(-3) mol/l) were compared with equimolar concentrations of N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and glutathione (GSH) in vitro to reduce OH. (hydroxyl radical), HOC1 (hypochlorous acid), O-2 (superoxide anion) and H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide). OH. was measured spectrophotometrically (deoxyribose assay); O-2 (xanthine/x-oxidase), H2O2 and HOC1 (HOC1/OC1-) were determined by chemiluminescence. Ambroxol, NAC and reduced GSH scavenged OH. significantly at 10(-3) mol/l, while HOC1 was inhibited at concentrations > or = 10(-4) mol/l completely (P < 0.01). NAC and GSH had no anti-O-2 function, while ambroxol (10(-4) mol/l) reduced O-2 by 14.3 +/- 6.7%. In contrast, GSH and NAC scavenged H2O2 at > 10(-6) mol/l (P < 0.01), while ambroxol had no anti-H2O2 effect. Our data demonstrate direct oxidant-reducing capabilities of ambroxol, which may be directly related to the aromatic moiety of the molecule. However, high concentrations (micromolar concentrations) are needed. Due to differences in direct oxidant scavenger function, a combination of ambroxol and NAC could be beneficial in antioxidant therapy.