Recent studies in alcoholic hepatitis have proposed a role for the cytokine tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) a mediator of endotoxic shock in sepsis. In this study plasma levels of the closely related cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) were assayed in 96 samples from 58 patients with severe alcoholic hepatitis, and 69 patients in control groups (21 normal, 10 alcoholic without liver disease, 10 inactive alcoholic cirrhosis, 18 chronic liver disease, 10 chronic renal failure). Plasma IL-6 levels were markedly elevated in patients with alcoholic hepatitis when compared with all control groups (P less than 0.001). IL-6 levels were higher in patients who died (P = 0.04) and correlated with the features of severe disease including: increased grade of encephalopathy, increased neutrophil count, increased prothrombin ratio, hypotension, increased serum creatinine and increased serum bilirubin. Surprisingly, no correlation was found between levels of plasma IL-6 and plasma TNF-alpha or endotoxin, or the presence of infection; an inverse correlation was found between plasma IL-6 and serum globulins. These findings provide further evidence that the IL-6/TNF cytokine system is activated in severe alcoholic hepatitis and may mediate hepatic or extra-hepatic tissue damage.