The effects of dexamethasone on the production of interleukin (IL) 1beta, IL-6, and tumor necrosis factor alpha were studied in preterm newborns, term infants, and adults. Twenty preterm and 22 term newborns and 30 healthy adults were included in the study. Mononuclear cells (MC) isolated from cord blood of newborns and peripheral blood of adults were incubated without or with lipopolysaccharide in the absence or presence of dexamethasone at concentrations between 10(-8) and 10(-5) M. The cytokine concentration in the supernatants was tested using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay kits. Although a dose-dependent inhibition of the cytokine production was observed at pharmacological doses of dexamethasone in individuals of the three groups, differences in the intensity of the effect were observed between the groups. Spontaneous secretion of IL-1beta or IL-6 by MC of preterm neonates was less inhibited by dexamethasone as compared with cells from adults. In contrast, the inhibitory effect of the drug on lipopolysaccharide-induced IL-6 and tumor necrosis factor alpha production was more pronounced on neonatal cells. As for term newborns, MC were more sensitive to the inhibitory effect of the drug on LPS-induced IL-6 production than cells of adults. The results suggest that dexamethasone treatment of preterm newborns may affect cytokine production with a consequent modulation of the host's immune response.