The ventilatory response to hypoxia depends on the pattern and intensity of hypoxic exposure and involves several physiological mechanisms. These mechanisms differ in their effect (facilitation or depression) on different components of ventilation (tidal volume and frequency) and in their time course (seconds to years). Some mechanisms last long enough to affect future ventilatory responses to hypoxia, indicating 'memory' or functional plasticity in the ventilatory control system. A standard terminology is proposed to describe the different time domains of the hypoxic ventilatory response (HVR) and to promote integration of results from different experimental preparations and laboratories. In general, the neurophysiological and neurochemical basis for short time domains of the HVR (seconds and minutes) are understood better than longer time domains (days to years), primarily because short time domains are studied in the laboratory more easily. Understanding the mechanisms for different time domains of the HVR has important implications for both basic and clinical science.