Acute respiratory distress syndrome in adults (ARDS) carries a high mortality. Patients with ARDS experience severe oxidative stress from neutrophil activation, and from treatment with high inspired oxygen concentrations (F(I)O2). Oxidative stress arises from an increased generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) which overwhelm existing antioxidant defenses. Patients who do not survive ARDS sustain much greater levels of oxidative molecular damage, suggesting that they are less able to protect themselves against increased oxidative stress. We measured plasma levels of pro-oxidant substrates for xanthine oxidase, namely hypoxanthine and xanthine, and correlated them with the loss of plasma protein thiol groups. All patients with ARDS had higher levels of hypoxanthine (37.48 +/- 3.1 microM in nonsurvivors, 15.24 +/- 2.09 microM in survivors) compared with patients undergoing pulmonary resection (9.22 +/- 1.89 microM), patients in intensive care with sepsis but no lung injury (1.12 +/- 0.69 microM) and normal healthy control subjects (1.43 +/- 0.38 microM). The difference in plasma hypoxanthine levels between survivors and nonsurvivors of ARDS was highly significant (p < 0.001) and showed a negative correlation with loss of protein thiol groups. Xanthine levels were also higher in patients with ARDS but were not significantly different between ARDS survivors and nonsurvivors. Nonsurvivors of ARDS appear to experience higher levels of oxidative stress and damage than do survivors.