To evaluate the effects of dexamethasone on pulmonary inflammation and permeability in preterm infants at high risk for chronic lung disease (birth weight < 1200 gm), we assessed tracheobronchial aspirate fluid for chemotactic activity and concentrations of mediators of inflammation. In a prospective study, 21 infants still undergoing mechanical ventilation at day 10 of postnatal age who required a fraction of inspired oxygen > or = 0.3, a peak inspiratory pressure > or = 16 cm H2O, or both were randomly assigned to treatment with dexamethasone at day 10 (early treatment group, n = 10) or day 16 (late treatment group, n = 11). The groups were compared with respect to all measurements on day 15; the late treatment group served as a control group. Additionally, the effects of dexamethasone within both groups were evaluated. In the early treatment group, the chemotactic response of peripheral blood neutrophils exposed to tracheobronchial aspirate fluid was significantly reduced 5 days after initiation of dexamethasone treatment compared with pretreatment values of the late treatment group (median (25th to 75th percentile): migratory distance before dexamethasone, 149 microns (140 to 173 microns); after dexamethasone, 81 microns (68 to 114 microns); p < 0.01). In addition, the following values were decreased after dexamethasone therapy in the early treatment group: number of neutrophils in tracheobronchial aspirate fluid (p < 0.05), and concentrations of leukotriene B4 (p < 0.01), interleukin-1 (p < 0.01), elastase-alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor (p < 0.01), and albumin (p < 0.01). Free elastase activity was found in only two infants; detectable activity of protective alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor was present in the others. Analysis of dexamethasone effects within the groups showed that all measurements were significantly decreased after both the early and the late treatment regimens, with the exception of leukotriene B4 and interleukin-1, which declined only after early dexamethasone treatment. Our results indicate that the pulmonary inflammatory response and microvascular permeability are decreased by dexamethasone, which affects the release of inflammatory mediators and neutrophil influx into the airways of preterm infants who require mechanical ventilation.