There is increasing direct experimental and indirect clinical evidence to indicate that under certain conditions intestinal barrier function may be lost in trauma victims. No direct measurements, however, have been performed in patients to determine whether intestinal permeability is increased shortly after a major thermal injury in the absence of infection. Fifteen hemodynamically stable burn patients with burns on more than 20% of their body surface (39% +/- 12%) had their intestinal permeability measured within 24 hours of injury with use of the two nonmetabolizable sugars lactulose and mannitol as permeability markers. Lactulose absorption was fourfold higher in the patients (223 +/- 54 mumol) than in the controls (58 +/- 11 mumole; p less than 0.02), whereas the lactulose/mannitol ratio was threefold higher (5.2 vs 1.7; p less than 0.05). Thus intestinal permeability was increased in patients with moderate to major burn injuries shortly after injury.