To determine if biologically active products of complement appear during sepsis and to establish the relationship of these components to the respiratory and hemodynamic complications of sepsis, we measured C5a des Arg and C3a des Arg (radioimmunoassay), neutrophil chemotaxis, and neutrophil-aggregating activity in plasma obtained from 40 patients at the time sepsis was suspected clinically. Levels of C3a des Arg and C5a des Arg were elevated in 35 and 38 patients, respectively, and in all 25 with positive blood cultures. Highest C5a des Arg levels occurred in patients with hypotension (less than 90 mmHg) and/or acidemia. The C5a des Arg concentrations were significantly higher in patients with than in those without neutrophil-chemotactic activity. Neutrophil-aggregating activity was less sensitive an index of complement activation, as it was positive in only 8 patients and correlated poorly with C5a des Arg and C3a des Arg values. Using a composite scoring system to quantify sepsis-related pulmonary abnormalities, we found that neither biologic nor immunologic assays of complement activation products correlated with the initial severity nor predicted the development or worsening of associated acute lung injury.