Nitric oxide derived from vascular endothelium is a potent vasodilator that plays a key role in the homeostasis of blood pressure. Because cirrhotic patients tend to have low arterial pressure, we measured in 51 patients and 10 control subjects serum nitrite and nitrate levels as an index of in vivo nitric oxide generation. We also measured plasma endotoxin, a substance frequently increased in cirrhotic patients and known to induce nitric oxide synthesis. Cirrhotic patients showed significant increases in serum nitrite/nitrate and plasma endotoxin compared with controls. Values were particularly increased in patients with decompensated cirrhosis, as manifested by ascites with or without functional kidney failure. High serum nitrite/nitrate levels were associated with high plasma renin activity, high aldosterone and antidiuretic hormone levels and low urinary excretion of sodium. In addition, serum nitrite/nitrate levels significantly correlated with endotoxemia. Oral administration of colistin to 15 cirrhotic patients reduced significantly plasma endotoxin levels (p < 0.01) and serum nitrite/nitrate levels (p < 0.05). Because endotoxin enhances the expression of inducible nitric oxide synthase, our results suggest that circulating endotoxin in cirrhosis is responsible for excessive synthesis and release of nitric oxide by the vasculature. These findings might explain the hemodynamic dysfunction seen in cirrhotic patients. (HEPATOLOGY 1993;18:1139-1143).