We have examined the actions of alkanols, halogenated ethanol derivatives and diethyl ether on ion current mediated by 5-HT3 receptors in NCB-20 neuroblastoma cells. The alcohols and diethyl ether potentiated 5-HT3 receptor-mediated ion current at concentrations that had no effect on membrane current when applied in the absence of agonist. The potency of alcohols increased with increasing hydrophobicity. However, the maximal efficacy of alcohols was unrelated to hydrophobicity. Interactions between different drugs applied simultaneously to cells were examined to determine whether these compounds compete for a distinct modulatory site associated with the 5-HT3 receptor. Analysis of interactions observed at different drug concentrations indicated a variety of interactions between different compounds, ranging from negative to positive allosteric interactions. Interactions between trichloroethanol (TCEt) and isopentanol exhibited characteristics that might indicate competition for a single site of action. However, further examination of interactions between these two drugs indicated that although isopentanol altered the efficacy of co-applied TCEt, TCEt did not have a similar effect with respect to isopentanol. Furthermore, isopentanol did not alter the potency of TCEt for potentiation of receptor function. The absence of competitive interactions among alcohols indicates that a single "alcohol receptor" cannot be defined using established pharmacologic approaches. Our findings are most consistent with the idea that alcohols interact with several hydrophobic sites associated with the 5-HT3 receptor.