Pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-8 play an important role in the inflammatory response to neonatal airway injury. Difficulty in detecting counter-regulatory cytokines such as IL-10 in lavage fluid from preterm infants led to the suggestion that its deficit may be a factor in the etiology of chronic lung disease of prematurity (CLD). The aim of the study was to determine IL-8 and IL-10 concentrations in lavage fluid from preterm infants ventilated for respiratory distress syndrome. Fifty infants <30 wk gestation were studied who had been randomized to receive a natural or synthetic surfactant. Lavage samples were collected daily for the first week and twice weekly thereafter. Samples were immediately centrifuged and stored at -70 degrees C. Cytokine concentrations were quantified in duplicate using commercially available sandwich ELISA kits. Lavage IL-10 concentration, at a minimum initially, rose significant over the first five postnatal days (p = 0.009). In the same samples, lavage IL-8 concentrations rose significantly over the first postnatal week (p < 0.001), the rise preceding that of IL-10. Infants dying or developing CLD had a significant early rise in both cytokine concentrations. Compared with infants developing CLD, lavage IL-10 concentrations were significantly higher on d 1 among those not developing CLD but significantly lower on d 4 (p < 0.05). To conclude, IL-10 is detectable in lavage fluid from ventilated preterm infants and its concentrations rise significantly over the first five postnatal days. In the same samples, IL-8 concentration also rises and this increase precedes the rise in IL-10.