Excessive nitric oxide (NO) production has been implicated to be responsible for the development of septic shock. To determine whether plasma nitrite/nitrate (NOx) levels are related to the severity of systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) and the degree of multiple organ dysfunction, we studied plasma NOx levels in 70 patients with SIRS consisting of noninfectious SIRS (n = 32), sepsis (n = 23), and septic shock (n = 15). Infection is a microbial phenomenon characterized by an inflammatory response to the presence of microorganism. Positive culture for microorganism is regarded as infectious SIRS (sepsis and septic shock) and negative culture is regarded as noninfectious SIRS. Plasma samples collected from each patient within 24 h from admission to the intensive care unit were subjected for measurement of NOx levels, the stable end products of NO, by the high performance liquid chromatography-Greiss system. Mean plasma NOx levels in patients with SIRS were 52.8 +/- 44 microM/L, ranging from 8.1 to 186.2 microM/L. Plasma NOx levels were positively correlated with Acute Physiology, Age, and Chronic Health Evaluation (APACHE) III score (r = 0.414, P < 0.01) and sequential organ failure assessment (SOFA) score (r = 0.433, P < 0.01). Plasma NOx levels in patients with sepsis (51.0 +/- 38.5 microM/L) and septic shock (94.5 +/- 53.7 microM/L) were significantly (P < 0.01) higher than those in patients with noninfectious SIRS (25.8 +/- 16.9 microM/L) and healthy subjects (29.6 +/- 8.9 microM/L). Our study shows that plasma NOx levels are increased in patients with infectious, but not noninfectious SIRS, which increase as the severity of SIRS and the development of multiple organ dysfunction syndrome, suggesting its possible pathogenic role in SIRS.