Plasma levels of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha), interleukin-1 (IL-1), and interleukin-6 (IL-6) were monitored after intravenous administration of Escherichia coli endotoxin with or without ibuprofen pretreatment to healthy volunteers. Intravenous endotoxin (n = 7) resulted in elevated plasma TNF alpha concentrations with maximal levels at 90 min (369 +/- 44 pg/ml, P less than .001 vs. saline controls, n = 7). The rise in TNF-alpha was followed by a rise in plasma IL-6 (27 +/- 12.8 ng/ml), peaking 30-90 min thereafter. Pretreatment with ibuprofen (n = 6) caused a significant augmentation and temporal shift in cytokine elaboration with maximal TNF alpha levels (627 +/- 136 pg/ml) at 120 min and IL-6 peaks (113 +/- 66 ng/ml) at 180 min. In ibuprofen-treated volunteers, the additional increase in TNF alpha was paralleled by increased levels of circulating elastase. In vitro experiments suggest a causal relationship between these events. Thus, the cyclooxygenase inhibitor ibuprofen blunts the clinical response to endotoxin but augments circulating cytokine levels and leukocyte degranulation.