The systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) is an acute illness characterized by generalized activation of the endothelium. The most severe form of the syndrome is found in patients with shock due to gram-negative sepsis. We examined both animal and limited human data for the contribution of cytokines to this syndrome. Cytokines are endogenously produced proteins of small molecular weight and multiple biological effects. The cytokines interleukin 1 (IL-1) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF), as well as interferon-gamma and interleukin 8, are discussed. Laboratory investigations suggest that these cytokines play a critical role in SIRS by promoting the biochemical and clinical characteristics of SIRS. The biochemical changes induced by TNF and IL-1 include increased synthesis of nitric oxide, prostaglandins, platelet-activating factor, and endothelial cell adhesion molecules. Specific blockade of TNF using neutralizing antibodies or soluble receptors to TNF in animal models of SIRS reduces mortality and severity of disease. Similar results have been observed blocking IL-1 using soluble IL-1 receptors or IL-1 receptor antagonists. Preliminary clinical studies suggest that blockade may be useful in treating human SIRS. The various strategies for blocking IL-1 and TNF are presented; in addition, their mechanism(s) of action and safety in humans are discussed. We conclude that based on animal studies and preliminary clinical trials, strategies to block IL-1 or TNF may benefit patients with the syndrome, although thorough clinical trials have not been completed.