Hypothermia affects various components of the immune system, leading to impaired immune resistance. To examine the in vitro effect of low temperature on the ultrastructure and phagocytic function of rat peritoneal macrophages, cells were incubated at 4, 10, 24, and 37°C for 60 min. Subsequently, their ultrastructure and capacity to engulf latex particles and generate superoxide anions were evaluated. The results showed a close inverse relationship between incubation temperature and ultrastructural changes, i.e., the lower the temperature, the higher the number of altered cells. In addition, at lower temperatures the number of cells capable of phagocytosis was reduced; the cells engulfed fewer particles per cell and generated less superoxide anions. These findings may be relevant for explaining the increased susceptibility to bacterial infections under hypothermic conditions. (C) 2000 Academic Press.