BACKGROUND: Resting energy expenditure (REE) is often increased and may contribute towards energy imbalance in patients with cystic fibrosis. Several mechanisms may lead to increased REE including the gene defect, the effect of chronic infection, and abnormal pulmonary mechanics. Increased oxygen cost of breathing (OCB) has been demonstrated in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but has not been the subject of extensive study in cystic fibrosis. METHODS: Ten clinically stable patients with cystic fibrosis and 10 healthy control subjects were studied. OCB was estimated using the dead space hyperventilation method. Mixed expired gas fractions were measured by online gas analysers and ventilation by a pneumotachograph. After measurement of resting ventilation and gas exchange, minute ventilation (VE) was stimulated by 6-10 1/min by the addition of a dead space and OCB calculated from the slope of the differences in oxygen uptake (VO2) and VE. REE and the non-respiratory component of REE were calculated from gas exchange data. To assess the repeatability of OCB all subjects had a further study performed one week later. RESULTS: The patients had lower weight, fat free mass (FFM), forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1), forced vital capacity (FVC), and transfer factor for carbon monoxide (TLCO) than controls. Resting respiratory rate, VE, and oxygen uptake per kilogram of FFM (VO2/kg FFM) were higher in patients (20 (7), 10.4 (1.4) 1/min and 5.5 (0.8) ml/kg FFM/min) than in controls (13 (4), 7.0 (1.2), and 4.2 (0.5), respectively.) The error standard deviation for replicated measures of OCB was 0.5 ml O2/l VE in controls and 0.8 ml O2/l VE in patients with coefficients of variation of 24% in controls and 28% in patients. The mean OCB in patients was 2.9 (1.4) ml O2/l VE and 2.1 (0.7) ml O2/l VE in controls. OCB, expressed as ml/min (VO2resp) was 28.5 (11.7) in patients and 14.0 (3.6) in controls. REE was higher in patients (125.9 (14.0)% predicted) than in controls (99.0 (9.4)%). The estimated non-respiratory component of REE was 112.1 (14.9)% for patients and 93.0 (10.0)% for controls. CONCLUSIONS: In clinically stable patients with cystic fibrosis the OCB at rest is increased but is not the sole explanation for increased metabolic rate. This contrasts with the finding in COPD where the increase in REE is largely explained by increased OCB. This study also showed poor repeatability and OCB measurements similar to earlier studies, which indicates that the technique is not suitable for longitudinal studies.