The effect of acute ethanol administration on the hepatic microvascular responses to sepsis was studied. Polymicrobial sepsis was induced 30 min after mice had received ethanol (1 g/kg b.w.) or isocaloric maltose-dextrin by gastric gavage. Lethality within 24 h was 91.7% in the ethanol-treated animals and 40.0% in septic controls. Endotoxin levels in ethanol treated animals were 107 pg/ml at 6 hr and 1205 pg/ml at 12 h, compared with 32 pg/ml and 104 pg/ml, respectively in the controls. In vivo microscopy revealed that at 3 h in the ethanol treated septic animals, Kupffer cell phagocytic activity was increased by 41%, whereas the number of sinusoids containing blood flow were reduced by 34% concomitant with a 144% increase in the adherence of leukocytes to the sinusoidal walls when compared with the septic controls. By 6 h, however, Kupffer cell phagocytic activity was reduced by 48% in the ethanol treated animals; this was accompanied by a further deterioration in sinusoidal blood flow. Thus, a small, acute dose of ethanol causes significant impairment of the hepatic microcirculation followed by suppression of Kupffer cell activity. This results in exacerbation of endotoxemia and lethality during polymicrobial sepsis.