It has been reported that the mRNA of the type 1 cytokine, interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma)--but not the type 2 cytokine interleukin-4 (IL-4)--is detected in synovial tissues of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients, whereas both IFN-gamma and IL-4 mRNA are detected in reactive arthritis (ReA). To evaluate such data more extensively, we obtained 208 synovial specimens in a prospective study of 52 early synovitis patients (13 RA, 11 ReA, 28 undifferentiated oligoarthropathy) and analyzed type 1 and type 2 cytokine mRNA expression in specimens containing sufficient mRNA. Using a nested reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction technique, we measured the relative mRNA levels of 10 cytokines and CD3 delta chain. We detected IL-10, IL-15, and CD3 delta chain mRNA in all RA and ReA patients and frequently detected tumor necrosis factor-alpha, IL-1 beta, and IFN-gamma mRNA. IL-6 and IL-12 p40 mRNA were detected in approximately one-half of the patients. We also detected greater amounts of IL-2 and IFN-gamma mRNA in ReA than were detected in RA. However, we rarely detected IL-4 or IL-13 mRNA. Similar cytokine profiles were observed in undifferentiated oligoarthropathy. The amounts of cytokine mRNAs, except for IL-10, in specimens from the patients taking prednisone or second-line antirheumatic drugs tended to be less than in specimens from the patients taking neither prednisone nor second-line antirheumatic drugs. These results suggest that cytokine mRNA profiles in patients with RA, ReA, and undifferentiated arthritis in their early stages are skewed toward proinflammatory macrophage-derived and type 1 cytokines. IL-10--not IL-4 or IL-13--mRNA appears to be the major antiinflammatory cytokine mRNA. Drug therapy is associated with depressed proinflammatory and type 1 cytokine mRNA production. The differences in the expression of IL-2 and IFN-gamma mRNA between RA and ReA may reflect unique etiological or host factors associated with the early stages of these diseases.