We measured levels of complement anaphylatoxin split products, C3a and C5a, in the circulation of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). In 23 SLE patients who were followed serially, the mean C3a value was 179 ng/ml during stable disease and 550 ng/ml during a disease flare. In 10 patients, C3a levels predicted disease activity, with the C3a value rising from a mean of 183 ng/ml at a time of stable disease to a mean of 242 ng/ml 1-2 months prior to a clinical exacerbation of disease. The mean C3a level in 5 patients with acute dysfunction of the central nervous system (CNS) was 1,297 ng/ml, which is significantly higher than that observed in patients with active disease but without CNS involvement (P less than 0.01). C5a levels were also significantly elevated in 4 patients with acute CNS disease. Pathologic specimens from 2 patients who died during an acute lupus flare revealed neutrophils occluding the cerebral and intestinal vessels. Fluorescein angiography in a patient with CNS lupus revealed vasoocclusive retinopathy. In 5 of 7 SLE patients who were pregnant, C3a levels were elevated, with a group mean value of 310 ng/ml. There was a negative correlation (r = -0.59) between C3a and C3 levels in pregnant patients with SLE, and this finding is consistent with complement activation as the cause of decreasing C3 levels. We suggest that serial measurements of C3a can predict flares of disease in lupus patients and can demonstrate complement activation during pregnancy in women with SLE. In addition, release of C3a and C5a (mediators of inflammation) into the circulation may elicit vascular injury, particularly in patients with lupus cerebritis.