BACKGROUND: Nitric oxide (NO) may be an important component of the host defence against infections. Endogenously produced NO is present in exhaled air and may be representative of respiratory tract production of NO. Since subjects infected with HIV are prone to develop respiratory infections, it was postulated that exhaled NO might be reduced in such individuals. METHODS: The exhaled concentration of NO (nl/l) and minute ventilation (l/min) were measured and exhaled NO release (nl/min/m2) calculated in 36 subjects infected with HIV (20 non-smokers, 16 smokers) and 31 non-smoking subjects with no active medical conditions. RESULTS: Exhaled NO from HIV positive individuals was less than from control subjects of similar age, height, and weight. Cigarette smoking did not account for the decreased exhaled NO in HIV positive individuals as both smoking and non-smoking HIV positive subjects had decreased exhaled NO compared with control subjects. CONCLUSION: Exhaled NO is decreased in subjects infected with the HIV. Since NO functions in host defence against bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, reduced exhaled NO may indicate a mechanism of impaired host defence in HIV infection.