Excitonic states in AlxGa1-xN/GaN quantum wells (QWs) are studied within the framework of effective-mass theory. Spontaneous and piezoelectric polarizations are included and their impact on the excitonic states and optical properties are studied. We witnessed a significant blue shift in transition energy when the barrier width decreases and we attributed this to the redistribution of the built-in electric field between well layers and barrier layers. For the exciton the binding energies, we found in narrow QWs that there exists a critical value for barrier width, which demarcates the borderline for quantum confinement effect and the quantum confined Stark effect. Exciton and free carrier radiative lifetimes are estimated by simple argumentation. The calculated results suggest that there are efficient non-radiative mechanisms in narrow barrier QWs. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.