Feeding a vitamin E-deficient diet increases pathology in hearts of mice infected with a myocarditic coxsackievirus B3 (CVB3/20). Hearts from infected mice fed a vitamin E-deficient diet rich in highly unsaturated fat (menhaden oil) exhibited more severe pathology than hearts from infected mice fed a vitamin E-deficient diet based largely on saturated fat (lard). Furthermore, a cloned and sequenced amyocarditic coxsackievirus B3 (CVB3/0), which caused little or no pathology in the hearts of vitamin E-supplemented mice, induced extensive cardiac pathology in vitamin E-deficient mice. In infected mice, both mitogen and antigen responses were depressed by vitamin E deficiency, although neutralizing antibody responses were unaffected. Natural killer cell responses were comparable in infected mice fed a lard-based diet with or without supplemented vitamin E. However, a menhaden oil-based diet, whether supplemented with vitamin E or not, significantly depressed natural killer cell activity in infected mice compared with mice fed the lard-based diet. Coxsackievirus B3/0 recovered from the heart of a vitamin E-deficient donor mouse, passaged one time onto HeLa cells, caused significant heart damage when passed back into vitamin E-supplemented recipient mice, demonstrating that the amyocarditic CVB3/0 had changed to a virulent phenotype. Enhanced virulence was also seen with CVB3/20 virus similarly passaged in a vitamin E-deficient donor. Our work demonstrates the important role of host nutritional antioxidant status in determining the severity of certain viral infections.