Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) is known to induce wasting in humans and animals. This study was undertaken to determine TNF-alpha concentrations in children with sickle cell disease (SCD) and whether high TNF-alpha levels are more likely to be present in children with growth deficits, infection, or pain crisis. Tumor necrosis factor alpha was measured using enzyme immunoassay in 143 blood samples obtained from 101 children. Mean TNF-alpha levels were higher in patients (50 pg/mL) than in 21 control children (19 pg/mL) and in 26 laboratory employees (20 pg/mL). During the follow-up period, 35%, 38%, and 28% of children with SCD had infection, pain crisis, or a blood transfusion, respectively. Mean TNF-alpha concentrations were higher in children who had an infection than in those who did not. No significant effect of pain crisis or blood transfusion was observed. Tumor necrosis factor alpha concentrations were above normal (> 40 pg/mL) in 15% of controls, 34% of children with SCD, and 52% of children with SCD who had an infection and 33% of those who did not. A higher percentage of children who had elevated TNF-alpha levels had weight (46% versus 31%) or height (50% versus 28.6%) deficits than children who had normal TNF-alpha levels. These results indicate that most children with SCD in stable condition have normal TNF-alpha concentrations and that those with high TNF-alpha levels are more likely to have growth deficits.