Microvascular blood flow alterations are frequent in animal models of sepsis and may impair tissue oxygenation. We hypothesized that alterations of the microcirculation are present in patients with sepsis. We used an orthogonal polarization spectral imaging technique to investigate the sublingual microcirculation in 10 healthy volunteers, 16 patients before cardiac surgery, 10 acutely ill patients without sepsis (intensive care unit control subjects), and 50 patients with severe sepsis. The effects of topical application of acetylcholine (10(-2) M) were tested in 11 patients with sepsis. In each subject, five to seven sublingual areas were recorded and analyzed semiquantitatively. Data were analyzed with nonparametric tests and are presented as medians (25th-75th percentiles). No significant difference in microvascular blood flow was observed between healthy volunteers and patients before cardiac surgery or intensive care unit control subjects. The density of all vessels was significantly reduced in patients with severe sepsis (4.5 [4.2-5.2] versus 5.4 [5.4-6.3]/mm in volunteers, p < 0.01). The proportion of perfused small (< 20 microm) vessels was reduced in patients with sepsis (48 [33-61] versus 90 [89-92]% in volunteers, p < 0.001). These alterations were more severe in nonsurvivors. The topical application of acetylcholine totally reversed these alterations. In conclusion, microvascular blood flow alterations are frequent in patients with sepsis and are more severe in patients with a worse outcome.