Reperfusion of acutely ischemic skeletal muscle is associated with neutrophil activation, which may augment local injury or cause damage to distant organs. Polymorphonuclear neutrophil glycoprotein CD18 plays a role in this injury, since its blockade substantially reduces damage; however, its mechanisms of control during reperfusion are poorly understood. The purpose of this study was to investigate the importance of circulating plasma factors to CD18-dependent neutrophil function during reperfusion and to relate these to quantitative expression of CD18. Eight rabbits were subjected to hindlimb ischemia for 5 h, followed by 48 h of reperfusion. Plasma collected at seven intervals was incubated with unstimulated neutrophils from uninjured rabbits. CD18-specific neutrophil activation was evaluated by quantifying adherence to protein-coated polystyrene and by measuring oxidant production, detected by chemiluminescence after exposure to complement-opsonized zymosan. CD18 was quantified cytofluorometrically. Plasma collected at end ischemia and during early reperfusion affected no significant alterations of adhesion, oxidant production, or CD18. Late reperfusion plasma (between 8 and 48 h) significantly increased adherence and oxidant production (to 4.11 +/- 0.61 and 2.60 +/- 0.32 times the values of preischemic plasma, P < 0.006). Peak adherence, oxidant production, and CD18 expression were evoked synchronously by 24 h plasma. CD18 expression increased only at 24 h and did not increase proportional to increases in adherence and oxidant production. Control plasma (nonischemic, n = 5) elicited no significant differences of any inflammatory measure during sham ischemia or reperfusion. These results indicate that endogenous mediators may evoke a progressive systemic inflammatory response after ischemia by stimulating CD18-dependent neutrophil function in a delayed but prolonged manner.