beta-Lactam antibiotics cause platelet dysfunction with bleeding complications. Previous in vitro studies documented reversible inhibition of agonist-receptor interaction. This mechanism is inadequate to explain the effect of beta-lactam antibiotics in vivo. Platelet function does not return to normal immediately after drug treatment, implying irreversible inhibition of platelet function. We report here evidence of irreversible platelet functional and biochemical abnormalities after in vitro and in vivo exposure to beta-lactam antibiotics. Irreversible binding of [14C]-penicillin (Pen) occurred in vitro. After 24 hours' in vitro incubation with 10 to 20 mmol/L Pen, or ex vivo after antibiotic treatment, irreversible functional impairment occurred; but no irreversible inhibition of alpha 2 adrenergic receptors, measured with [3H]-yohimbine, or high-affinity thromboxane A2/prostaglandin H2 (TXA2/PGH2) receptors, measured with agonist [3H]-U46619 and antagonist [3H]-SQ29548, occurred. However, low- affinity platelet TXA2/PGH2 receptors were decreased 40% after Pen exposure in vitro or in vivo, indicating irreversible membrane alteration. Two postreceptor biochemical events were irreversibly inhibited in platelets incubated with Pen for 24 hours in vitro or ex vivo after antibiotic treatment. Thromboxane synthesis was inhibited 28.3% to 81.7%. Agonist-induced rises in cytosolic calcium ([Ca2+]i) were inhibited 40.1% to 67.5% in vitro and 26.6% to 52.2% ex vivo. Therefore, Pen binds to platelets after prolonged exposure, resulting in irreversible dysfunction attributable to inhibition of TXA2 synthesis and impairment of the rise in [Ca2+]i. The loss of low- affinity TXA2/PGH2 receptors suggests that the primary site of action of these drugs is on the platelet membrane.