Nitric oxide (NO) synthase (iNOS) is required for the resolution of acute cutaneous leishmaniasis in resistant C57BL/6 mice. As is the case in several other infections, the clinically cured host organism still harbors small amounts of live Leishmania major parasites. Here, we demonstrate lifelong expression of iNOS at the site of the original skin lesion and in the draining lymph node of long-term-infected C57BL/6 mice. iNOS activity in the lymph node was dependent on CD4+, but not on the CD8+ T cells. By double labeling techniques, iNOS and L. major were each found in macrophages (F4/80+, BM-8+, and/or MOMA-2+) and dendritic cells (NLDC-145+), but not in granulocytes or endothelial cells. In situ triple labeling of lymph node sections revealed that approximately 30-40% of the L. major foci were associated with iNOS-positive macrophages or dendritic cells. The majority of the L. major foci (60-70%), however, was located in areas that were negative for both iNOS and the macrophage and dendritic cell markers. In L. major-infected C57BL/6 mice, which had cured their cutaneous lesions, administration of L-N6-iminoethyl-lysine (L-NIL), a potent inhibitor of iNOS, led to a 10(4)-10(5)-fold increase of the parasite burden in the cutaneous and lymphoid tissue and caused clinical recrudescence of the disease. Persistent expression of iNOS and resumption of parasite replication after application of L-NIL was also observed in resistant C3H/HeN and CBA/J mice. We conclude that iNOS activity is crucial for the control of Leishmania persisting in immunocompetent hosts after resolution of the primary infection. Failure to maintain iNOS activity might be the mechanism underlying endogenous reactivation of latent infections with NO-sensitive microbes during phases of immunosuppression.