Interleukin-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1ra), a naturally occurring inhibitor of interleukin-1 (IL-1), blocks IL-1 binding to its receptors but has no agonistic activity. IL-1 is thought to play an important role in contact hypersensitivity (CHS), although the effects of exogenously administered IL-1 in CHS have been somewhat controversial. To clarify the role of IL-1 in CHS, we studied the effect of IL-1 receptor blockade using exogenous IL-1ra and evaluated these effects on CHS. We examined the in vivo effects of local administration of recombinant human IL-1ra in the murine CHS model. Local injection of IL-1ra to sensitized BALB/c mice just before challenge with dinitrofluorobenzene resulted in a significant reduction in the intensity of CHS responses, assessed by ear swelling. A dose-response study revealed that maximal inhibition of ear swelling (36% to 43%) was observed after intradermal injection of IL-1ra at doses of 10 to 100 micrograms/ear. This reduction in ear swelling in IL-1ra-injected ears consisted of less inflammatory cell infiltration and decreased edema in the dermis compared with controls. Suppression of CHS was observed when IL-1ra was applied in the 24-h interval preceding challenge with dinitrofluorobenzene, whereas no suppressive effect was observed when IL-1ra was applied 48 h before or after the challenge. Local administration of IL-1ra to naive mice 5 h before sensitization also suppressed CHS responses. However, IL-1ra injection did not suppress phenol-induced inflammation. These results suggest that IL-1ra is an effective inhibitor of both the sensitization and elicitation phases of CHS expression in mice, thus emphasizing the role of IL-1 as an immunologic potentiator of responses associated with CHS.