Key points: Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a fatal muscle wasting disease associated with increased inflammation and oxidative stress. The antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) has been proposed as a therapeutic intervention for DMD boys, but potential adverse effects of NAC have not been widely investigated. We used young (6 weeks old) growing mdx mice to investigate the capacity of NAC supplementation (2% in drinking water for 6 weeks) to improve dystrophic muscle function and to explore broader systemic effects of NAC treatment. NAC treatment improved normalised measures of muscle function, and decreased inflammation and oxidative stress, but significantly reduced body weight gain, muscle weight and liver weight. Unexpected significant adverse effects of NAC on body and muscle weights indicate that interpretation of muscle function based on normalised force measures should be made with caution and careful consideration is needed when proposing the use of NAC as a therapeutic treatment for young DMD boys. Abstract: Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a fatal X-linked muscle wasting disease characterised by severe muscle weakness, necrosis, inflammation and oxidative stress. The antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) has been proposed as a potential therapeutic intervention for DMD boys. We investigated the capacity of NAC to improve dystrophic muscle function in the mdx mouse model of DMD. Young (6 weeks old) mdx and non-dystrophic C57 mice receiving 2% NAC in drinking water for 6 weeks were compared with untreated mice. Grip strength and body weight were measured weekly, before the 12 week old mice were anaesthetised and extensor digitorum longus (EDL) muscles were excised for functional analysis and tissues were sampled for biochemical analyses. Compared to untreated mice, the mean (SD) normalised grip strength was significantly greater in NAC-treated mdx [3.13 (0.58) vs 4.87 (0.78) g body weight (bw)−1; P < 0.001] and C57 mice [3.90 (0.32) vs 5.32 (0.60) g bw−1; P < 0.001]. Maximum specific force was significantly greater in NAC-treated mdx muscles [9.80 (2.27) vs 13.07 (3.37) N cm−2; P = 0.038]. Increased force in mdx mice was associated with reduced thiol oxidation and inflammation in fast muscles, and increased citrate synthase activity in slow muscle. Importantly, NAC significantly impaired body weight gain in both strains of young growing mice, and reduced liver weight in C57 mice and muscle weight in mdx mice. These potentially adverse effects of NAC emphasise the need for caution when interpreting improvements in muscle function based on normalised force measures, and that careful consideration be given to these effects when proposing NAC as a potential treatment for young DMD boys.