Beyond their classical role as a class of female sex hormones, estrogens (e.g. 17β-estradiol) exert important biological actions, both protective and undesirable. We have investigated the ability of estradiol to protect the lung in three models of acute injury induced by 1) oxidant stress due to the herbicide paraquat; 2) excitotoxicity, caused by glutamate agonist N-methyl-D-aspartate; and 3) acute alveolar anoxia. We also assessed the role of estrogen receptors (ER) ERα and ERβ and the neuropeptide vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) in mediating this protection. Isolated guinea pig or rat lungs were perfused in situ at constant flow and mechanically ventilated. The onset and severity of lung injury were monitored by increases in pulmonary arterial and airway pressures, wet/dry lung weight ratio, and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid protein content. Estradiol was infused into the pulmonary circulation, beginning 10 min before induction of injury and continued for 60–90 min. Lung injury was marked by significant increases in the above measurements, with paraquat producing the most severe, and excitotoxicity the least severe, injury. Estradiol significantly attenuated the injury in each model. Both ER were constitutively expressed and immunohistochemically demonstrable in normal lung, and their selective agonists reduced anoxic injury, the only model in which they were tested. As it protected against injury, estradiol rapidly and significantly stimulated VIP mRNA expression in rat lung. Estradiol attenuated acute lung injury in three experimental models while stimulating VIP gene expression, a known mechanism of lung protection. The up-regulated VIP expression could have partially mediated the protection by estrogen.