Cyclooxygenase (COX), or prostaglandin (PG) H synthase, plays a role in inflammatory diseases, but very limited data exist on the regulation of COX in vivo. We, therefore, studied the in vivo expression of COX in synovia from patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA), as well as joints of rats with streptococcal cell wall (SCW) and adjuvant arthritis. Extensive and intense intracellular COX immunostaining, which correlated with the extent and intensity of mononuclear cell infiltration, was observed in cells throughout RA synovia. Significantly less or equivocal staining was noted in OA and normal human synovia. Similarly, COX immunostaining was equivocal in the joints of normal and arthritis-resistant F344/N rats. In contrast, high level expression developed rapidly in euthymic female Lewis (LEW/N) rats throughout the hindlimb joints and overlying tissues including skin, preceding or paralleling clinically apparent experimental arthritis. COX was expressed in the joints of athymic LEW.rnu/rnu rats 2-4 d after injection of SCW or adjuvant but was not sustained. Physiological doses of antiinflammatory glucocorticoids, but not progesterone, suppressed both arthritis and COX expression in LEW/N rats. These observations suggest that, in vivo, (a) COX expression is upregulated in inflammatory joint diseases, (b) the level of expression is genetically controlled and is a biochemical correlate of disease severity, (c) sustained high level up-regulation is T cell dependent, and (d) expression is down-regulated by antiinflammatory glucocorticoids.