In vivo and in vitro studies have shown that complement activation plays an important role in the pathogenesis of the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). In a prospective study of polytrauma patients at risk of ARDS (n = 38) complement parameters were determined over a period of 14 days in serial plasma samples (obtained every 6 h during the first 48 h). Polytrauma induced a rapid and remarkable complement activation. Low levels of the complement proteins C3, C4, C1 inhibitor (C1 INH) factor I and factor H during the first 48 h indicated complement consumption in all patients. Elevated C3a levels in the first few hours after injury were associated with the later development of ARDS. A more sensitive indicator than C3a alone was the calculated C3a:C3 ratio discriminating ARDS and non-ARDS patients. A second rise of C3a levels and C3a:C3 ratio from day 4 on paralleled the course of extravascular lung water. To assess the mode of complement activation, the activation-specific protein complexes C1rC1s-C1 INH and C3b(Bb)P were measured in some of the patients. We demonstrate that in the first 48 h complement activation occurred via the alternative pathway only and was later followed by an additional activation via the classical pathway. Our observations suggest that monitoring of C3a and C3 in plasma can identify polytrauma patients at high risk for ARDS at an early stage of the disease.