The increased incidence of infection in preterm neonates has been related in part to their relative deficiency of most complement components, because complement is known to participate in the defense against bacterial and viral infections. In a prospective study, complement activation products were determined in 52 preterm infants. Twenty preterm infants suffered from proven early onset infection, 11 infants were presumed to suffer from infection, which could not be confirmed. Twenty-one preterm infants without infection or perinatal asphyxia formed the control group. EDTA plasma was obtained within the first 6 h after birth, and follow-up examinations were done in 15 patients with proven infection during the next 24 h. The complement activation products C3a-desArg, C3bBbP, and sC5b-9 were measured with enzyme immunoassay systems. In preterm neonates with early onset infection, a significant elevation of C3a-desArg was found in the very early course of the disease. C3a-desArg generation resulted from alternative pathway activation as shown by a concurrent increase of C3bBbP concentration. In addition, significantly higher concentrations of sC5b-9 predicted infection in the first few hours after birth. Thus, despite very low levels of native complement proteins, preterm babies are able to generate remarkable amounts of activation products of the complement cascade. The elevation of these activation products preceded by hours significant changes of routine laboratory markers of infection, such as leukocyte count, differential blood count, and C-reactive protein. Thus they might help to identify preterm neonates with severe systemic infection earlier than other laboratory parameters.