We studied the permissiveness of human leukocytes, blood monocytes, alveolar macrophages, and cord blood monocytes to infection with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Specific immunofluorescence was used to determine the percentage of infected leukocytes. The results indicated that monocytes were the most susceptible human leukocyte to in vitro infection with RSV. Polymorphonuclear leukocytes demonstrated no specific fluorescent staining after 24 h of exposure to RSV, whereas peripheral blood nonadherent mononuclear cells demonstrated a low percentage of positive cells, with a mean of 6 +/- 1% SE. In contrast, 37 +/- 5% of monocytes expressed RSV antigen after viral exposure. Exposure of monocytes to lipopolysaccharide (LPS) for 1 h prior to RSV increased the percentage of infected cells to 48 +/- 6% and stimulated their secretion of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) and alpha tumor necrosis factor (TNF). Intrinsic mononuclear phagocytic factors influencing the permissiveness to RSV were studied by determining infection of adult and cord blood and alveolar mononuclear phagocytes (MP). Alveolar and blood MP simultaneously isolated from adult donors were similarly infected by RSV, which varied with the viral dose. Cord blood MP were more susceptible to RSV infection than were adult MP, 58 +/- 9% infected versus 37 +/- 5%, respectively (p less than 0.05). Treatment with LPS for 1 h prior to RSV exposure did not increase infection of cord blood MP as seen with adult blood MP. However, LPS can induce human monocytes to secrete cytokines with antiviral activity, and our results indicate that both gamma interferon and TNF, independently or in combination, prevented infection of monocytes in a dose-dependent manner.