Peroxidation by peripheral blood leucocytes was measured in 15 patients in acute septic shock and 15 uninfected controls, using the probe dichloroflorescein. Mortality in septic subjects was 40%. In 14 of 15 patients from whom serial samples were analysed, periods of increased oxidative activity were detected. Increased peroxidation occurred early in the sequence of clinical changes, at the same time as increases in temperature, blood pressure and C-reactive protein. Peak peroxide production preceded increases in acute phase reactants and changes in leucocyte distribution. Mean peroxide production in leukocytes from patients who died was significantly higher (P < 0.001) than paired controls, and greater (P < 0.05) than peroxide production in patients who survived. The in vitro oxidative response to endotoxin was upregulated in infected patients. This supports the hypothesis that systemic mediators and leucocyte-derived reactive oxygen are involved in the vascular and organ damage associated with fatal septic shock.