Airway closure and the formation of atelectasis have been proposed as important contributors to impairment of gas exchange during general anaesthesia. We have elucidated the relationships between each of these two mechanisms and gas exchange. We studied 35 adults with healthy lungs, undergoing elective surgery. Airway closure was measured using the foreign gas bolus technique, atelectasis was estimated by analysis of computed x-ray tomography, and ventilation-perfusion distribution (VA/Q) was assessed by the multiple inert gas elimination technique. The difference between closing volume and expiratory reserve volume (CV-ERV) increased from the awake to the anaesthetized state. Linear correlations were found between atelectasis and shunt (r = 0.68, P < 0.001), and between CV-ERV and the amount of perfusion to poorly ventilated lung units ("low Va/Q", r = 0.57, P = 0.001). Taken together, the amount of atelectasis and airway closure may explain 75% of the deterioration in PaO2. There was no significant correlation between CV-ERV and atelectasis. We conclude that in anaesthetized adults with healthy lungs, undergoing mechanical ventilation, both airway closure and atelectasis contributed to impairment of gas exchange. Atelectasis and airway closure do not seem to be closely related.