Erythrocytes of neonates and adults were incubated with increasing concentrations of H2O2 in the presence of a catalase inhibitor and in the absence of glucose; the pattern of oxidation of vitamin E was analyzed in relationship to that of glutathione, hemoglobin, and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), and in relationship to hemolysis. The changes of these various parameters were analyzed in function of H2O2 concentration and in relation to incubation time, and were compared in erythrocytes from neonates and adults. In the absence of H2O2, erythrocyte glutathione and tocopherol levels were similar in neonates and adults, despite fourfold lower serum vitamin E level in neonates; alpha-tocopherolquinone, methemoglobin, and malonyldialdehyde (MDA) were not detectable. At 0.375 mmol/L of H2O2, glutathione was completely oxidized. Erythrocyte alpha-tocopherol remained unchanged up to 0.75 mmol/L of H2O2, then decreased linearly, with increasing H2O2 concentrations to 10% of its initial value at 1.5 mmol/L of H2O2 in erythrocytes from neonates, whereas those from adults required 2.0 mmol/L of H2O2 (P less than .05) for the same level of oxidation. The formation of alpha-tocopherolquinone appeared inversely related to the decrease of alpha-tocopherol. The incubation time did not influence the level of vitamin E oxidation. MDA was generated autocatalytically and resulted in hemolysis at 1.5 mmol/L of H2O2 in erythrocytes from neonates and at 3.5 mmol/L of H2O2 in erythrocytes from adults (P less than .001). After four hours of incubation, MDA reached a plateau at a greater level (365 +/- 46 nmol/L) in cells of neonates than in those of adults (208 +/- 37 nmol/L/mL) (P less than .001). Hemoglobin was oxidized in the same pattern in erythrocytes of neonates and adults, and 90% of it was oxidized at 0.625 mmol/L of H2O2. In conclusion, in the experimental conditions used, oxidation of glutathione precedes that of vitamin E, and tocopherol is the last antioxidant to be consumed before the autocatalytic generation of MDA. Differences in the pattern of vitamin E oxidation, MDA generation, and hemolysis in erythrocytes from neonates and adults may be due to a lower erythrocyte vitamin E-PUFA ratio in neonates.