It has long been speculated that pro-inflammatory cytokines play an important role in wound repair. However, little is known about the temporal and spatial expression pattern of these cytokines during normal and impaired wound healing. In this study we show a strong and early induction of interleukins 1 alpha and beta (IL-alpha and beta) and of tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) expression after cutaneous injury. Highest levels of these cytokines were seen as early as 12-24 h after wounding. After completion of the proliferative phase of wound healing, mRNA levels of these cytokines returned to the basal level. During the early phase of wound repair, proinflammatory cytokines were predominantly expressed in polymorphonuclear leukocytes, suggesting a novel function of these cells in the initiation of wound healing. At later stages of the repair process, expression of IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta and TNF-alpha was also seen in macrophages. Furthermore, TNF-alpha was detected in the hyperproliferative epithelium at the wound edge and IL-1 alpha was found in keratinocytes of the hair follicles. Induction of these cytokines after injury was significantly reduced during wound repair in healing-impaired glucocorticoid-treated mice. This finding demonstrates that wound healing defects are associated with impaired cytokine expression and suggests that the early induction of these genes is important for normal repair.