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Anesthetic agents alter pharyngeal function with risk of impaired airway protection and aspiration. This study was performed to evaluate pharyngeal function during subhypnotic concentrations of propofol, isoflurane, and sevoflurane and to compare the drugs for possible differences in this respect.Forty-five healthy volunteers were randomized to receive propofol, isoflurane, or sevoflurane. During series of liquid contrast bolus swallowing, fluoroscopy and simultaneous solid state videomanometry was used to study the incidence of pharyngeal dysfunction, the initiation of swallowing, and the bolus transit time. Pressure changes were recorded at the back of the tongue, the pharyngeal constrictor muscles, and the upper esophageal sphincter. After control recordings, the anesthetic was delivered, and measurements were made at 0.50 and 0.25 predicted blood propotol concentration (Cp50asleep) for propofol and 0.50 and 0.25 minimum alveolar concentration (MAC)awake for the inhalational agents. Final recordings were made 20 min after the end of anesthetic delivery.All anesthetics caused an increased incidence of pharyngeal dysfunction with laryngeal bolus penetration. Propofol increased the incidence from 8 to 58%, isoflurane from 4 to 36%, and sevoflurane from 6 to 35%. Propofol in 0.50 and 0.25 Cp50asleep had the most extensive effect on the pharyngeal contraction patterns (P < 0.05). The upper esophageal sphincter resting tone was markedly reduced from 83 ± 36 to 39 ± 19 mmHg by propofol (P < 0.001), which differed from isoflurane (P = 0.03). Sevoflurane also reduced the upper esophageal sphincter resting tone from 65 ± 16 to 45 ± 18 mmHg at 0.50 MACawake (P = 0.008). All agents caused a reduced upper esophageal sphincter peak contraction amplitude (P < 0.05), and the reduction was greatest in the propofol group (P = 0.002).Subhypnotic concentrations of propofol, isoflurane, and sevoflurane cause an increased incidence of pharyngeal dysfunction with penetration of bolus to the larynx. The effect on the pharyngeal contraction pattern was most pronounced in the propofol group, with markedly reduced contraction forces.