This study was carried out to investigate comparatively the frequency of apoptosis in lung epithelial cells after intratracheal instillation of endotoxin [lipopolysaccharide (LPS)] in rats and the role of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) on apoptosis, and the effects of erdosteine and N-acetylcysteine on the regulation of apoptosis. Female Wistar rats were given oral erdosteine (10-500 mg kg) or N-acetylcysteine (10-500 mg kg(-1)) once a day for 3 consecutive days. Then the rats were intratracheally instilled with LPS (5 mg kg(-1)) to induce acute lung injury. The rats were killed at 24 h after LPS administration. Lung tissue samples were stained with hematoxylin-eosin for histopathological assessments. The apoptosis level in the lung bronchial and bronchiolar epithelium was determined using the TUNEL (terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick endlabelling) method. Cytoplasmic TNF-a was evaluated by immunohistochemistry. Pretreatment with erdosteine and pretreatment with N-acetylcysteine at a dose of 10 mg kg(-1) had no protective effect on LPS-induced lung injury. When the doses of drugs increased, the severity of the lung damage caused by LPS decreased. It was found that as the pretreatment dose of erdosteine was increased, the rate of apoptosis induced by LPS in lung epithelial cells decreased and this decrease was statistically significant in doses of 300 mg kg(-1) and 500 mg kg(-1). Pretreatment with N-acetylcysteine up to a dose of 500 mg kg(-1) did not show any significant effect on apoptosis regulation. It was noticed that both antioxidants had no significant effect on the local production level of TNF-alpha. These findings suggest that erdosteine could be a possible therapeutic agent for acute lethal lung injury and its mortality. Copyright (c) 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.