Induction of specific heat shock (HS) proteins (HSP) has been described as a response of human monocytes to phagocytosis, and HSP may play protective roles in infection and immunity. Here we compared the stress response in monocytes and polymorphonuclear neutrophils during exposure to the classical inducers of HSP, i.e., HS and cadmium. We also investigated the stress response in these two phagocytic cells after particulate (phagocytosis) and nonparticulate [f-Met-Leu-Phe (FMLP)] activation of the respiratory burst enzyme NADPH oxidase. HS and cadmium induced stress protein synthesis in both cell types. In contrast, phagocytosis induced HSP in monocytes only, while FMLP did so in neutrophils only. This differential regulation of stress proteins might relate to physiological and functional differences between monocytes and neutrophils. With respect to functional effects of HS, we examined, in human monocytes and in neutrophils, the effect of HS on NADPH oxidase-mediated O2- generation as well as on phagocytosis, bacterial killing, and superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity. In monocytes, as in neutrophils, NADPH oxidase activity was inhibited by HS, while thermotolerance prevented this inhibition. Phagocytosis and bacterial killing were unaltered by HS. SOD activity transiently increased in monocytes but decreased in neutrophils upon exposure to HS. These observations indicate differential induction of HSP in human phagocytes and differential regulation of phagocytes' functions by HS.