We examined the effect of high-frequency oscillatory ventilation (HFOV) on tracheal smooth muscle tension and upper airway resistance in anesthetized dogs. The animals were ventilated via a low tracheostomy by HFOV or conventional intermittent positive pressure ventilation (IPPV) with and without added positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP). The transverse muscle tension of the trachea above the tracheostomy was measured and found to be lower during HFOV when compared with IPPV or IPPV with PEEP. When both vagi were cooled to 8 degrees C to interrupt afferent traffic from the lungs, there was no longer any difference between the modes of ventilation. In a second series of experiments, the airflow resistance of the upper airway above the tracheostomy was measured (Ruaw). During HFOV, Ruaw was significantly lower than during either IPPV or IPPV with PEEP. We conclude that HFOV induces a relaxation of tracheal smooth muscle and a reduction of upper airway resistance through a vagally mediated mechanism.