Although neutrophils are not viewed as a principal defense against influenza A virus (IAV) infection, their interactions are both complex and clinically relevant. Activation of the neutrophil is distinctive from that described for chemoattractants. To more fully characterize the pathway by which IAV stimulates the human neutrophil, we have examined its binding characteristics. First, inhibition studies with various sialic acid-containing and sialic-free sugars showed that IAV binds to sialic acid residues and activates receptors distinct from those used by Concanavalin-A (Con-A) and formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (FMLP) and that overlap those bound by wheat germ agglutinin (WGA). That viral hemagglutinin (HA) mediates viral binding and activation was shown by preincubating neutrophils with purified monovalent bromelain-released HA (BHA) and showing that IAV-induced membrane depolarization and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) production were inhibited approximately 95%. However, binding inhibition required significantly higher concentrations of purified HA, suggesting that binding and cell activation have different interactive requirements. Desialation of the neutrophil surface membrane by neuraminidase treatment resulted in a 90.6% +/- 4.4% and 53.1% +/- 8.7% inhibition of IAV activation of neutrophils and viral binding, respectively. Resialation with ganglioside GT1b totally restored viral binding, but did not reverse the inhibition of activation. Thus, although HA was shown to mediate binding and neutrophil activation, viral binding per se was insufficient to stimulate the cell. Having demonstrated the functional role of HA, we sought to establish the mechanism of stimulation. HA in three different forms (BHA, HA-rosettes, and HA-liposomes) failed to activate the cell, although H2O2 production evoked by IAV stimulation was reduced in competitive inhibition studies with each preparation. Upon cross-linking with a monoclonal antibody to HA, activation comparable to that of intact virus was observed. The requirement for cross-linking of functional receptors, as opposed to activation through the neutrophil Fc receptor, was confirmed in experiments using staphylococcal A protein. These studies have shown the chemical specificity of IAV binding to the human neutrophil, the character of the receptor(s) stimulated to activate the IAV-evoked response, and the activation requirement for cross-linking those receptors responsible for stimulating functional responses.