Neutrophils were preincubated with 17 beta-estradiol and progesterone to determine the effects of these hormones on chemotactic peptide-stimulated superoxide anion (O2-) generation and degranulation. At pharmacologic levels 17 beta-estradiol was more active than progesterone with respect to inhibition of O2- generation as well as degranulation. An increase of preincubation time from 5 minutes to 25 minutes increased the percent inhibition. When 17 beta-estradiol and progesterone were combined at levels which approximate those measured during gestation, there was small but significant inhibition of O2- generation. Dexamethasone at equal molar concentration inhibited O2- generation only after 25 minutes of preincubation and at no time reached the level of inhibition attained by either of the sex hormones alone. Both estradiol and progesterone at pharmacologic levels significantly inhibited beta-glucuronidase and lysozyme release, whereas dexamethasone did not inhibit degranulation despite prolonged preincubation. Neutrophils isolated from women during various phases of the menstrual cycle and during the third trimester of pregnancy did not differ with respect to chemotactic peptide-stimulated O2- generation. These data suggest that inhibition of neutrophil responses requires the continuous presence of pharmacologic levels of estradiol and progesterone.