UNLABELLED Hyperoxic ventilation, used to prevent hypoxia during potential periods of hypoventilation, has been reported to paradoxically decrease whole-body oxygen consumption (VO2). Reduction in nutritive blood flow due to oxygen radical production is one possible mechanism. We investigated whether pretreatment with the sulfhydryl group donor and O2 radical scavenger N-acetylcysteine (NAC) would preserve VO2 and other clinical indicators of tissue oxygenation in cardiac risk patients. METHODS Thirty patients, requiring hemodynamic monitoring (radial and pulmonary artery catheters) because of cardiac risk factors, were included in this randomized investigation. All patients exhibited stable clinical conditions (hemodynamics, body temperature, hemoglobin, F1O2 < 0.5). Cardiac output was determined by thermodilution and VO2 by cardiovascular Fick. After baseline measurements, patients randomly received either 150 mg kg-1 NAC (n = 15) or placebo (n = 15) in 250 ml 5% dextrose i.v. over a period of 30 min. Measurements were repeated 30 min after starting NAC or placebo infusion, 30 min after starting hyperoxia (F1O2 = 1.0), and 30 min after resetting the original F1O2. RESULTS There were no significant differences between groups in any of the measurements before treatment and after the return to baseline F1O2 at the end of the study, respectively. NAC, but not placebo infusion, caused a slight but not significant increase in cardiac index (CI), left ventricular stroke work index (LVSWI) and a decrease in systemic vascular resistance. Significant differences between groups during hyperoxia were: VO2 (NAC: 108 +/- 38 ml min-1m-2 vs placebo: 79 +/- 22 ml min-1m-2; P < or = 0.05), CI (NAC: 4.6 +/- 1.0 vs placebo: 3.7 +/- 1.11 min-1m-2; P < or = 0.05) and LVSWI (NAC: 47 +/- 12 vs placebo: 38 +/- 9; P < or = 0.05). The mean decrease of VO2 was 22% in the NAC group vs 47% in the placebo group (P < or = 0.05) and the mean difference between groups in venoarterial carbon dioxide gradient (PvaCO2) was 14% (P < or = 0.05). ST segment depression ( > 0.2 mV) was significantly less marked in the NAC group (NAC: -0.02 +/- 0.17 vs placebo: -0.23 +/- 0.15; P < or = 0.05). CONCLUSIONS NAC helped preserve VO2, oxygen delivery, CI, LVSWI and PvaCO2 during brief hyperoxia in cardiac risk patients. Clinical signs of myocardial ischemia did not occur such as ST-depression if patients were prophylactically treated with NAC. This suggests that pretreatment with NAC could be considered to attenuate impaired tissue oxygenation and to preserve myocardial performance better in cardiac risk patients during hyperoxia.