Airway samples from infants with respiratory distress syndrome were recovered by suction immediately after tracheal intubation for respiratory failure. The minimum surface tension of these airway samples was 27.3 +/- 3.0 dynes/cm. Surfactant with low surface tension (1.4 +/- 1.0 dynes/cm) was recovered from these samples by centrifugation; the supernatant fractions from the samples had high minimum surface tensions. The supernatant fractions contained soluble proteins that inhibited the surface tension-lowering properties of natural sheep surfactant. Similar supernatant fractions collected from infants intubated for reasons other than respiratory distress syndrome were much less inhibitory to sheep surfactant. The minimum surface tension of sequential daily airway samples from infants with respiratory distress syndrome fell progressively to 5.7 +/- 2.4 dynes/cm on the day of extubation. These results document the presence of proteins in the airways of infants with respiratory distress syndrome that inhibit the surface tension-lowering properties of surfactant.