The pathogenesis of ventilator-induced lung injury has predominantly been attributed to overdistension or mechanical opening and collapse of alveoli, whereas mechanical strain on the airways is rarely taken into consideration. Here, we hypothesized that mechanical ventilation may cause significant airway distension, which may contribute to the pathological features of ventilator-induced lung injury. C57BL/6J mice were anesthetized and mechanically ventilated at tidal volumes of 6, 10, or 15 ml/kg body wt. Mice were imaged by flat-panel volume computer tomography, and central airways were segmented and rendered in 3D for quantitative assessment of airway distension. Alveolar distension was imaged by intravital microscopy. Functional dead space was analyzed in vivo, and proinflammatory cytokine release was analyzed in isolated, ventilated tracheae. CT scans revealed a reversible, up to 2.5-fold increase in upper airway volume during mechanical ventilation compared with spontaneous breathing. Airway distension was most pronounced in main bronchi, which showed the largest volumes at tidal volumes of 10 ml/kg body wt. Conversely, airway distension in segmental bronchi and functional dead space increased almost linearly, and alveolar distension increased even disproportionately with higher tidal volumes. In isolated tracheae, mechanical ventilation stimulated the release of the early-response cytokines TNF-α and IL-1β. Mechanical ventilation causes a rapid, pronounced, and reversible distension of upper airways in mice that is associated with an increase in functional dead space. Upper airway distension is most pronounced at moderate tidal volumes, whereas higher tidal volumes redistribute preferentially to the alveolar compartment. Airway distension triggers proinflammatory responses and may thus contribute relevantly to ventilator-induced pathologies.