Absence of the spleen or splenic function predisposes individuals to risk of overwhelming infection. These infections are most often due to encapsulated organisms, especially pneumococcus, Haemophilus influenzae type b, and meningococcus, but any bacterial agent may cause the rapid onset of septicemia, meningitis, pneumonia, and shock characteristic of the asplenic-hyposplenic condition. The risk is greatest in infants and young children, but asplenic-hyposplenic adults also have an increased risk of infection. Prophylactic antibiotics and immunization with polyvalent pneumococcal, H. influenzae type b, and meningococcal vaccines have reduced the incidence of infections in asplenic-hyposplenic individuals, but even these measures have not eliminated the risk. Surgeons have adopted techniques to save as much splenic tissue as possible and some splenic functions, such as pitting red cells, have been preserved, but conservative surgery has not provided total protection against overwhelming infection. Therapies designed to interrupt the cascade of overwhelming sepsis have not yet been successful. In those cases in which the spleen is surgically removed, the underlying disease or condition leading to splenectomy influences the risk of sepsis. Splenectomy incidental to other operations, such as gastrectomy, results in the lowest risk for overwhelming infection, but this is still some 35-fold greater than the risk for overwhelming infections in the general population. In increasing order of risk, the other main indications for surgical removal of the spleen are idiopathic thrombocytopenia purpura, trauma, transplantation procedures, hereditary spherocytosis, staging Hodgkin's disease, portal hypertension with hypersplenism, and thalassemia. Pathologists should comment on the risk of overwhelming sepsis when spleens are processed as surgical specimens, and should carefully weigh all splenic tissue, including accessory spleens and splenic implants (splenosis), in autopsy cases with and without overwhelming sepsis.