Radiation pneumonitis is a life-threatening result of therapeutic thoracic irradiation, yet its mechanisms are poorly understood. We studied the effects of unilateral lung irradiation (3,000 rad) in sheep from the immediate response to the later development of radiation pneumonitis. We defined radiation pneumonitis by its diagnostic clinical feature, radiographic infiltration of the irradiated zone with a straight margin corresponding to the radiation port. The immediate response in the few hours after irradiation was characterized by cough, labored respiration, hypoxemia (arterial PO2 decreased 19 Torr), mild pulmonary hypertension (pulmonary arterial pressure increased 20%), and lymphopenia. Hemodynamics and gas exchange returned to normal by day 2 but became abnormal again before or during radiation pneumonitis at 32 +/- 2 days. Respiratory distress, hypoxemia, and pulmonary hypertension recurred during radiation pneumonitis. Bronchoalveolar lavage during radiation pneumonitis contained increased neutrophils (19 +/- 4%, control = 7%), increased protein (0.27 +/- 0.1 g/dl, control = 0.12 +/- 0.03), and severely impaired ability to lower surface tension. Alveolar macrophages from both lungs during unilateral radiation pneumonitis exhibited impaired generation of superoxide after phorbol myristate (only a 30% increase). Normal control alveolar macrophages increased superoxide production after stimulation greater than 400%. We conclude that unilateral lung irradiation in sheep causes a mild immediate response followed by radiation pneumonitis at 1 mo. Unilateral radiation pneumonitis in this model is associated with ipsilateral neutrophilic alveolitis, increased bronchoalveolar lavage protein, and impaired surfactant function, as well as bilateral functional abnormalities of alveolar macrophages.