Severe postmortem bronchoconstriction has been shown previously in guinea pig lungs and linked to pulmonary blood loss during exsanguination (Lai et al., J. Appl. Physiol. 56: 308-314, 1984). To reexamine this phenomenon we measured postmortem airway function in anesthetized open-chest guinea pigs after sudden circulatory arrest. Animals were divided into 4 groups of 10 and ventilated for 15 min postmortem with different gases: 1) room air, 2) conditioned air, 3) dry 5% CO2-21% O2-74% N2, and 4) conditioned 5% CO2-21% O2-74% N2. In room air-ventilated lungs there was a 50% decrease in dynamic compliance (Cdyn) by 15 min and marked gas trapping compared with control lungs. Conditioning the room air did not attenuate these changes, but when 5% CO2 was added to the conditioned postmortem inspirate, gas trapping was eliminated and the fall in Cdyn was almost abolished. Ventilation with a dry 5% CO2 gas mixture at room temperature resulted in a 31% fall in Cdyn at 15 min but no gas trapping. We conclude that marked abnormalities of airway function occur postmortem in room air-ventilated guinea pig lungs in the absence of pulmonary blood loss. The changes are mainly due to airway hypocarbia, a known cause of bronchoconstriction, but a reduction in Cdyn can also occur if there is marked airway cooling and drying. Acute postmortem airway dysfunction can be prevented in the guinea pig by maintaining normal airway gas composition.