Background: At present, it is unclear whether in experimental endotoxemia, the pro-inflammatory response observed in healthy volunteers is followed by an anti-inflammatory response, as observed in patients with sepsis. We studied the evolution of a number of inflammatory parameters during a prolonged period (24 h) after infusion of endotoxin in healthy subjects. Methods: Six healthy male subjects received an infusion of endotoxin (4 ng/kg body weight). Blood was drawn before, and at various intervals up to and including 24 h after, endotoxin infusion. Circulating cytokine levels, leukocyte activation surface markers, plasma lactoferrin, and neopterin levels were measured, and clinical signs and symptoms were noted during a 24-h period. Monocyte and neutrophil activation after endotoxin infusion is investigated in relation to the inflammatory response. The extent of neutrophil and monocyte activation was correlated to clinical markers and blood levels of inflammatory mediators and cytokines. Results: Tumor necrosis factor-alpha appeared 30 min after infusion in the circulation, peaking (5665+/-1910 pg/ml) at 2 h. Interleukin-10 appeared 60 min after infusion, peaking (427+/-348 pg/ml) at 3 h. The expression of leukocyte activation markers increased significantly after infusion. Expression of HLA-DR on monocytes decreased significantly after 3 h (P=0.03). There was a correlation between the TNF-alpha:IL-10 ratio and the CD11b:HLA-DR ratio (P=0.03). Conclusions: During experimental human endotoxemia, an initial pro-inflammatory response is successfully compensated by an anti-inflammatory response, leading to homeostasis. This is in contrast to what happens in septic patients with compensatory anti-inflammatory response syndrome. The inflammatory balance, expressed as the cytokine pro:anti-inflammatory ratio, is reflected at a cellular level.