OBJECTIVE: To determine the effect on oxygen saturation of instilling a saline bolus into artificial airways prior to suctioning, as measured by pulse oximeter. DESIGN: Quasi-experimental, single-case, counterbalanced design. SETTING: The surgical, medical and coronary intensive care units of a federal, teaching medical center. SUBJECTS: Subjects were 40 men, more than 40 years old, in need of intensive care nursing and mechanical ventilation. INTERVENTIONS: Subjects were suctioned as needed for 24 hours. A 5-mL saline bolus was instilled every other time the subject was suctioned. Outcome measurements were done immediately before and after suctioning and at 1-minute intervals for 5 minutes after suctioning. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Noninvasive oxygen saturation values. RESULTS: The instillation of a saline bolus was found to have an adverse effect on oxygen saturation that worsened over time. Significant changes in oxygen saturation as a result of saline bolus instillation were found at 2,3,4 and 5 minutes after instillation. CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate that instilling saline prior to suctioning has an adverse effect on oxygen saturation. These results support the recommendation that the practice of instilling saline prior to suctioning should be abandoned as a routine procedure. More study is needed to investigate whether a specific group of patients may actually benefit from this procedure.