Redox-based mechanisms play critical roles in the regulation of multiple cellular functions. NF-kappaB, a master regulator of inflammation, is an inducible transcription factor generally considered to be redox-sensitive, but the modes of interactions between oxidant stress and NF-kappaB are incompletely defined. Here, we show that oxidants can either amplify or suppress NF-kappaB activation in vitro by interfering both with positive and negative signals in the NF-kappaB pathway. NF-kappaB activation was evaluated in lung A549 epithelial cells stimulated with tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha), either alone or in combination with various oxidant species, including hydrogen peroxide or peroxynitrite. Exposure to oxidants after TNFalpha stimulation produced a robust and long lasting hyperactivation of NF-kappaB by preventing resynthesis of the NF-kappaB inhibitor IkappaB, thereby abrogating the major negative feedback loop of NF-kappaB. This effect was related to continuous activation of inhibitor of kappaB kinase (IKK), due to persistent IKK phosphorylation consecutive to oxidant-mediated inactivation of protein phosphatase 2A. In contrast, exposure to oxidants before TNFalpha stimulation impaired IKK phosphorylation and activation, leading to complete prevention of NF-kappaB activation. Comparable effects were obtained when interleukin-1beta was used instead of TNFalpha as the NF-kappaB activator. This study demonstrates that the influence of oxidants on NF-kappaB is entirely context-dependent, and that the final outcome (activation versus inhibition) depends on a balanced inhibition of protein phosphatase 2A and IKK by oxidant species. Our findings provide a new conceptual framework to understand the role of oxidant stress during inflammatory processes.