In adult animals, airway fluid secretion is enhanced reflexly via central nervous system pathways, and locally by mediators such as substance P. To evaluate the role of maturation on these regulatory mechanisms, we compared the effects of reflex stimulation and intravenous substance P administration on airway secretion in anesthetized, paralyzed and artificially ventilated piglets, 9 to 22 days of age, and older piglets all aged 10 weeks. Airway secretion was monitored by counting the hillocks appearing in the upper trachea in an exposed field of tracheal epithelium (1.2 cm2) coated with powdered tantalum. In younger animals, mechanical stimulation of the larynx had no discernible effect on tracheal submucosal gland secretion. Neither excitation of airway irritant receptors nor stimulation of pulmonary C-fiber receptors by capsaicin caused a significant increase of fluid secretion from tracheal submucosal glands. In addition, stimulation of peripheral chemoreceptors by ventilating animals with 12% O2 in N2, and 6% O2 in N2, failed to induce a substantial change in airway secretion, when compared with number of hillocks in the control period. Furthermore, administration of sodium cyanide had little or no effect on baseline secretion. In contrast, to the weak reflex responses in younger piglets electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve caused the number of hillocks to increase on average by 16.3 +/- 2.3 (P less than 0.01). In addition, local application of a pledget soaked in solution of methacholine caused the number of hillocks to increase by 32.1 +/- 5.2 (P less than 0.01). Intravenous administration of substance P also induced an augmentation in fluid secretion. Increase in concentration of substance P (10(-8), 10(-7), 10(-6), and 10(-5) M, 1 ml) was associated with a concomitant elevation in the number of activated submucosal glands (5.3 +/- 2.6, 10.0 +/- 4.4, 27.1 +/- 4.5, 41 +/- 5). In older piglets, stimulation of laryngeal mucosa, airway irritant receptors, as well as stimulation of pulmonary C-fiber receptors induced a significant increase in tracheal secretion, although stimulation of peripheral chemoreceptors had no effect on airway secretion. These data suggest that reflex responses of submucosal glands are weak during early postnatal development, however, tracheal submucosal glands do respond to exogenously administered cholinergic substances and tachykinin peptides.