The effects of acute ethanol intoxication on the functional activities of circulating and lung-recruited polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNs) and alveolar macrophages (AMs) were determined in rats challenged with intratracheal endotoxin to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the defects of pulmonary host defenses caused by acute ethanol intoxication. Acute ethanol Intoxication was induced by an intraperitoneal injection of 20% ethanol at a dose of 5.5 g of ethanol/kg. The control animals were injected with an equal amount of saline. Thirty min after intraperitoneal injection, rats were challenged with intratracheal endotoxin (300 micrograms/kg in 0.5 ml of saline) or saline. The rats were killed 3 h after intratracheal injection. CD11b/c expression on PMNs and phagocytosis and hydrogen peroxide generation of PMNs and AMs were determined by flow cytometry. Cytokine-Induced neutrophil chemoattractant (CINC) level in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid was measured with a specific ELISA. Intratracheal endotoxin caused a significant PMN recruitment into the lung in control animals. Acute ethanol intoxication completely suppressed the endotoxin-induced pulmonary recruitment of PMNs. Pulmonary-recruited PMNs exhibited a significant upregulation (8-fold) of CD11b/c expression when compared with circulating PMNs. This upregulation of CD11b/c expression was abolished by ethanol intoxication. Ethanol intoxication suppressed hydrogen peroxide generation by AMs and lung-recruited PMNs, and the phagocytosis of circulating PMNs. In contrast, acute ethanol intoxication did not affect pulmonary CINC production. These data indicate that the antiinflammatory effects of alcohol seem to be primarily based on the effects of ethanol on the PMNs themselves and not on the generation of certain chemotactic stimuli. In addition to the impairment of PMN recruitment, the suppression of AM and PMN activities also contributes to the mechanisms underlying ethanol-induced defects of pulmonary host defenses.