Mild hypothermia directly impairs numerous immune functions in vitro. However, the in vivo effects of mild hypothermia on neutrophil phagocytosis and oxidative killing remain unknown. We tested the hypothesis that mild intraoperative hypothermia decreases neutrophil phagocytic capacity and generation of reactive oxygen intermediates (a measure of oxidative killing). Additionally, we evaluated the effects of in vitro temperature manipulations on each function. Thermal management was randomly assigned in 10 surgical patients, causing intraoperative core temperatures to range from 33 to 37 degrees C. Production of reactive oxygen intermediates and neutrophil phagocytosis were evaluated using flow cytometry at ambient temperature. Phagocytic capacity was assessed by uptake of fluorescein isothiocyanate-labeled Escherichia coli. Reactive oxygen production was estimated by the intracellular conversion of dihydrorhodamine 123 to rhodamine 123. Blood samples were obtained preoperatively, 1 h after surgery started, and 2 h postoperatively. Blood was also obtained from 10 matched control subjects and tested at 32, 37, and 40 degrees C. Neutrophil oxidative and phagocytic capacities were significantly reduced intraoperatively, compared with preoperative and postoperative values. Intraoperative production of reactive oxygen species was linearly related to core temperature. In contrast, there was no correlation between core temperature and phagocytic activity. In vitro production of reactive oxygen intermediates increased sixfold from 32 to 40 degrees C. In vitro phagocytic capacity increased fourfold in this temperature range. Production of oxidative intermediates was most closely related to intraoperative core temperature, decreasing nearly fourfold over a 4 degree C range. This in vitro temperature dependence was matched in vitro. Impaired neutrophil oxidative killing may contribute to the observed hypothermia-induced reduction in resistance to infection.