The effects of ethanol (ETOH) on post-transcriptional regulation of inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) in vivo has not been demonstrated. We examined the effect of ETOH on iNOS mRNA, protein, and the production of the nitrate and nitrite anion (RNI) in rat lung alveolar macrophages (AM) in vivo when stimulated by lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and dibutyryl cyclic AMP (DB-cAMP). Sprague-Dawley rats (225-250 g) (n = 5-7/gp) were given intratracheal LPS (0.6 mg/kg) or DB-cAMP (0.1 and 1 mg/kg) 30 min after ETOH (4 mg/kg, intraperitoneally (ip)) or phosphate-buffered sterile saline (PBS) (5 ml/kg, ip) or pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate (PDTC 10 mg/kg, intratracheally) or 15 min after diethyl dithiocarbamate (DETC) (5 mg/kg, intratracheally). At selected times after administration of LPS or DB-cAMP, the animals were anesthetized, the lungs with the heart attached were removed and the lungs subjected to bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL). The BAL fluid was assayed for tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) and RNI. The BAL fluid AM were isolated and analyzed for iNOS mRNA and protein with competitor-equalized polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and Western blots, respectively. The ex vivo incubates of AM were assayed for RNI and TNF alpha. LPS and DB-cAMP each increased iNOS mRNA and protein in AM and RNI in the BAL fluid and ex vivo incubates of AM. However, the peak of the increase of iNOS mRNA occurred at 2 hr for DB-cAMP and 4 to 6 hr for LPS. Only LPS increased the concentrations of TNF alpha in BAL fluid and ex vivo incubates of AM. ETOH attenuated LPS-mediated up-regulation of iNOS mRNA and TNF alpha and iNOS protein and RNI produced by the AM. In contrast, pretreatment of rats with ETOH did not affect DB-cAMP-mediated increases of iNOS mRNA in AM at any time but suppressed the amount of iNOS protein and RNI produced in DB-cAMP-stimulated AM. DETC, but not PDTC, attenuated LPS-mediated up-regulation of iNOS mRNA without effects on that produced by DB-cAMP. Since ETOH and DETC, but not PDTC, suppressed LPS-mediated but not DB-cAMP-mediated transcription of iNOS, we conclude that two distinct pathways exist for induction of iNOS mRNA by these agonists. ETOH and DETC may inhibit the LPS-mediated activation pathway by acting as antioxidants. Also, since ETOH inhibited DB-cAMP-mediated increases in iNOS protein without affecting iNOS mRNA ETOH also acts at a post-transcriptional or translational site to inhibit iNOS protein in rat AM in vivo.