A problem in mechanical ventilation is the accumulation of mucus secretions in the endotracheal tube (ETT), which tends to reduce the patent cross-sectional area. Here we characterized the extent and locus of the ETT obstruction using an acoustic reflection method recently modified to be applied at bedside. Experiments were conducted both in vivo in 10 intubated patients and in vitro in ETT with or without known constrictions of 1 to 3 mm over 5 cm, located at various distances from the ETT entry: 5, 10, 15, and 20 cm. Acoustic results were compared with the results obtained by an hydraulic reference method, which was the only method available to measure ETT obstruction in mechanically ventilated patients. In vivo acoustic results showed that area reductions were maximal near the tracheal extremity of the ETT, with a range from 2 to 36% (mean value 13 +/- 10%), when estimated relative to the area measured in an unused ETT of the same inner diameter (7 to 9 mm). Statistical analysis of the differences between acoustic reflection data and hydraulic data showed that the two methods did not differ significantly. In vitro acoustic results obtained in constricted ETT showed a highly significant correlation with the actual area (r = 0.97, p = 0.0001). Thus, reductions in ETT area may be detected, quantified, and located by the present acoustic reflection method, which therefore provides a means to avoid emergency extubation because of ETT obstruction.