The role of lymphocyte apoptosis in septic shock remains a controversial issue. Using Annexin V and flow cytometry analysis on freshly isolated cells, we evaluated circulating lymphocyte apoptosis in 23 septic shock, 25 sepsis without shock, 7 nonseptic critically ill, and 25 control patients. In patients with sepsis, we compared day 1 lymphocyte apoptosis (i.e., within 3 days of the onset of infection) with that observed 5-7 days after (day 6) according to shock state, mortality, and seventy factors. At day 1, patients in septic shock exhibited higher lymphocyte apoptosis than that present in controls (16.5% +/- 3.5% vs. 3% +/- 0.5%, respectively, P = 0.0001). At day 6, patients with sepsis without shock restored undamaged CD4+ T and CD8+ T lymphocyte counts, whereas patients in septic shock increased only CD4+ T cells. Similarly, survivors restored undamaged lymphocyte count at day 6 (+70%, P < 0.001), whereas nonsurvivors did not. Day 6 undamaged lymphocyte count negatively correlated with day 1 SAPS II, day 6 LOD score, mechanical ventilation, and ICU stay duration. We observed no apoptotic effect of septic shock plasma or septic shock circulating mononuclear cells on target lymphoid cell lines. We found no alteration in any death receptors Fas, TRAIL-R1, TRAIL-R2, or in their ligands on circulating blood cells. Catecholamines and interleukin 10 levels significantly increased in patients with septic shock, but did not correlate with apoptosis levels. We conclude that lymphocyte apoptosis is rapidly increased in blood of patients in septic shock and that lymphocyte apoptosis leads to a profound and persistent lymphopenia associated with poor outcome. These results suggest that lymphocyte apoptosis is one of the main components of human septic shock immune dysfunction and could be related more to microcirculatory disturbance than to circulating factors.