Sepsis, an infection-induced inflammatory syndrome, is a leading and increasing cause of mortality worldwide. Animal and human observational studies suggest statins may prevent the morbidity and mortality associated with the sepsis syndrome. In this Review, we describe the demonstrated mechanisms through which statins modulate the inflammatory response associated with sepsis. These mechanisms include effects on cell signalling with consequent changes at the transcriptional level, the induction of haem oxygenase, the direct alteration of leucocyte-endothelial cell interaction, and the reduced expression of MHC II. Since statins do not target individual inflammatory mediators, but possibly reduce the overall magnitude of the systemic response, this effect could prove an important distinguishing feature modulating the host response to septic insults. This work establishes the biological plausibility needed for future trials of statins in critical illness.