BACKGROUND: Intravenous anesthetics may modify airway responsiveness. The author investigated the relaxant effect of thiopental, ketamine, and propofol on isolated rat tracheal smooth muscles. METHODS: The trachea of the rat was dissected and cut into 3-mm rings. The rings were mounted in a water-jacked organ bath filled with Krebs solution aerated with 95% O2 and 5% CO2 at 37degreesC. Thiopental, ketamine, and propofol were given randomly to each ring preconstricted with EC50 of acetylcholine from 10(-6) to 10(-3) M. The relaxation response was the tension during anesthetic equilibration, expressed as a percentage of the tension from EC50 of acetylcholine. RESULTS: Thiopental and propofol (10(-5) to 10(-3) M) relaxed acetylcholine-induced contractions in a dose dependent manner (P < 0.05). Ketamine in doses of 10(-5) and 10(-4) M constricted acetylcholine-induced contractions by 3.2% and 16.5% respectively (P < 0.05). But ketamine in a dose of 10(-3) relaxed acetylcholine-induced contractions by 76.4% (P < 0.05). The relaxation of tracheal smooth muscles was greatest in thiopental, and was least in ketamine (P < 0.05). CONCLUSIONS: All three intravenous anesthetics have an excellent relaxation of tracheal smooth muscles in rats, except in doses of 10(-5) and 10(-4) M of ketamine.