Nasal obstruction has been associated with apneic episodes during sleep. However, the normal distribution of nasal and oral air flow while asleep has not been investigated. To determine the normal route of ventilation during sleep, we studied 7 healthy men and 7 healthy women using a sealed face mask that mechanically separated nasal and oral air flow. Standard sleep staging techniques were employed. The subjects slept 297 +/- 29 (SEM) min, with a mean of 197 +/- 15 min of ventilation recorded. Ventilation was decreased during sleep as has been previously demonstrated. However, during sleep, we found that men breathed a greater percentage of total ventilation through the mouth (29.0 +/- 8.2%) than did women (5.0 +/- 1.0%, p less than 0.02). The same trend applied during wakefulness but did not reach significance (p = 0.06). Although none was symptomatic, 4 subjects, all men, had more than 3 apneas per hour. These 4 men had a greater percentage of mouth ventilation (37.3 +/- 19.0%) than did the other 10 subjects with few or no apneas (8.1 +/- 2.7%, p less than 0.02). It was also noted that increasing age in men was associated with an increasing percentage of mouth ventilation (r = 0.83 p less than 0.03) but this relationship was not observed in women. We conclude that mouth breathing may be associated with apneas during sleep and that breathing through the mouth occurs commonly in men, particularly in those who are older. This suggests that nasal breathing may be important in the maintenance of ventilatory rhythmicity during sleep.