Leprosy patients during the natural course of the disease may develop reactional episodes, namely reversal reaction (RR) and erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL). Immunological events described as occurring during RR indicate up-regulation of the immune response, whereas in ENL the events are not fully understood. The aim of this study was to analyse the in vivo pattern of cytokine gene expression in the reactional states of leprosy. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC, n = 14) and tissue samples (n = 17) obtained from patients with ENL and RR were obtained and assayed by RT-PCR. PBMC obtained from unreactional patients (n = 15) and normal individuals (n = 5) were also assessed. Expression of interferon (IFN)gamma, granulocyte-macrophage colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF), interleukin (IL)-2Rp55, perforin and IL-1beta mRNA in PBMC were detected mostly in ENL/RR patients, but not in unreactional patients. Likewise, cytokines such as IL-6, IL-8, tumour necrosis factor (TNF)alpha and TNFbeta were also present in reactional and tuberculoid patients as opposed to lepromatous leprosy (BL/LL). Interestingly, the majority of ENL/RR patients showed messages for IL-6, IL-10, IL-12 and TNFalpha in the skin. IFNgamma was detected in 84.6% (ENL) and 100% (RR) of the patients, whereas IL-4 was detected only in few individuals (38.5 and 25%, respectively). Although mRNA expression and protein levels may be different, the data reported in this study suggest a cytokine mRNA profile that seems to be indistinguishable for RR and ENL. In addition, it shows up-regulation of immuno-inflammatory cytokines in the blood and tissue of the same patient examined before and during reaction. Furthermore, it is suggested that this pattern of response results from an immunological reactivation that might lead to an acute inflammatory response in both reactional episodes.