Tissue injury and infection produce significant alterations in host metabolic and immune homeostasis. It is increasingly clear that many of these changes result from a complex cascade of mononuclear phagocyte-derived endogenous mediators. Among the more important is a group of host proteins called cytokines, which play an integral role in mediating the host response to tissue injury and infection. Of these proteins, tumour necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin (IL) types 1 and 6 have received much attention for their pathophysiological roles in infection and trauma. Evidence is reviewed for the involvement of these cytokines in the characteristic alterations in the metabolic and immune responses to such injury. These endogenous mediators initiate an integrated fuel substrate and hormonal adjustment to trauma and sepsis, and help to provide optimal metabolic homeostasis for systemic host defences. Widespread tissue injury, especially when associated with fulminant sepsis, may, however, precipitate massive release of TNF, IL-1 and IL-6, triggering a series of reactions involving multiple organs, and culminating in the 'sepsis syndrome'. New therapies designed to downregulate this aberrant response, either by neutralizing endotoxin directly or by blocking the release or actions of these cytokines, are reviewed. Although these treatments hold much promise for the future management of severely traumatized and infected patients, careful evaluation of both the benefits and complications of therapy is needed before widespread clinical use can be recommended.