There is increasing experimental and clinical evidence that a number of cytokines play a major role in the response to injury and infection and in the development of organ damage in critically ill patients. Tumour necrosis factor (TNF) is now proposed to be a key mediator of organ injury during sepsis. It is elevated early in the course of septic shock and high levels correlate with unfavourable outcome. In animals it can produce the effects of endotoxin. The prophylactic administration of anti-TNF antisera protects mice and rabbits from lethal effects of lipopolysaccharide. Interleukin-1 (IL-1) is an endogenous pyrogen which induces leukocytosis and muscle catabolism. It causes hypotension and tachycardia by reducing smooth muscle contractility. IL-1 receptor blockers have been shown to diminish mortality in experimental endotoxic shock. Interleukin-6 (IL-6) is a pyrogen and lymphocyte activator. It is the major stimulus to acute phase protein production by the liver. A recently described neutrophil-activating peptide (Interleukin-8; IL-8) may be involved in the pathogenesis of ARDS. High blood levels of IL-8 have been found in patients with septic shock. Platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) has been shown to stimulate TNF production, leukocyte chemotaxis and pulmonary vasoconstriction in response to endotoxin. Other cytokines and growth factors have not yet been studied in critical illness. The cytokine network can be either protective or damaging. Its activation during critical illness triggers complex and still poorly understood interactions. A better comprehension of its role in protection from infection and in the pathogenesis of multiple organ failure may allow therapeutic manipulations aimed at minimising adverse effects while retaining immunological protection.