Methacholine inhalation tests measure airway responsiveness in asthmatic and normal subjects. Tachyphylaxis occurs with repeated methacholine inhalations in normal subjects. The purpose of this study was to examine the time course and mechanisms of methacholine tachyphylaxis in normal subjects and to determine whether this occurs in mildly asthmatic subjects. Fifteen normal and nine asthmatic subjects were studied on 2 study days, at least 48 h apart. Each day, two inhalation tests were carried out. On one day, subjects performed two methacholine inhalation tests 3 h later by a methacholine test. Results were expressed as the provocation concentration causing a 20% fall in forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1), (PC20). All normal subjects developed methacholine tachyphylaxis. The mean PC20 increased from 47.3 mg/ml (%SE 1.34) to 115.6 (%SE 1.51) (P less than 0.0001) in a 3-h interval. This increase lasted for greater than or equal to 6 h (P = 0.012). Asthmatic subjects did not develop methacholine tachyphylaxis. Their mean methacholine PC20s were 1.6 mg/ml (%SE 1.4) and 1.5 (%SE 1.4) (P = 0.75) 3 h later. In two other series of experiments, normal subjects were pretreated with the cyclooxygenase inhibitors indomethacin (100 mg/day) or flurbiprofen (150 mg/day) or a placebo for 3 days before two methacholine tests 3 h apart. Both indomethacin and flurbiprofen significantly inhibited the development of methacholine tachyphylaxis. These results confirm that methacholine tachyphylaxis occurs in normal subjects, lasts greater than or equal to 6 h, and may occur through the release of inhibitory prostaglandins. By contrast, methacholine tachyphylaxis does not occur in asthmatic subjects.