Respiratory tract infections are major causes of excessive morbidity and mortality in hospitalized patients. Persons with systemic sepsis have an especially high risk of acquiring these infections, which indicates that their lung antibacterial defenses are compromised. To evaluate the effects of sepsis on pulmonary antibacterial defenses, we injected either saline or 5 mg/kg of Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide intravenously into Sprague-Dawley rats. Two hours later, the animals were challenged by aerosol inhalation with either Staphylococcus aureus or Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It is known that phagocytic defenses against aerosolized S. aureus challenges are provided solely by the alveolar macrophage; in normal animals challenged with P. aeruginosa, however, an intrapulmonary inflammatory response is elicited. Animals pretreated with endotoxin showed a significant decrease in pulmonary bactericidal activity against S. aureus with 31 +/- 3% bacteria remaining viable at 4 hr compared with 20 +/- 2% in the controls, which indicates a defect in alveolar macrophage antimicrobial activity. After P. aeruginosa challenge, saline-injected control animals developed a marked intrapulmonary inflammatory response and killed greater than 85% of their initial inoculum by 4 hr. By contrast, endotoxin-treated animals failed to recruit neutrophils into the alveoli in response to P. aeruginosa, resulting in a proliferation of this pathogen within the lung (212 +/- 6% bacteria remaining viable at 4 hr). Endotoxin is known to be a potent stimulus for the production of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) by the host. TNF is a potent inflammatory mediator and promotes neutrophil adhesion to the vascular endothelium. In these experiments, serum TNF peaked at 28,390 +/- 7,766 Units/ml. 90 min after intravenous endotoxin. Histopathology of the lungs in these animals showed considerable sequestration of the neutrophils within the pulmonary vasculature. These data show that systemic endotoxin significantly impairs lung host defenses against intrapulmonary bacterial challenges and suggest that TNF-mediated events may play a central role.