Studies indicate that polymicrobial sepsis in humans and animals is characterized by a biphasic response, which is dominated early by proinflammation, but overtime develops into a state of generalized anti-inflammation (depressed Th1 cell response and decreased macrophage (M0) capacity to release proinflammatory cytokines). However, with respect to the macrophage, it remains unknown what mechanism(s) controls this change. In this regard it is well documented that the p38 mitogen activated protein kinase pathway (MARK) plays a central role in the regulation of Mφ functions. However, the contribution of p38 MARK activation to the loss of these Mφ functions in polymicrobial septic animals remains unknown. To determine this we induced polymicrobial sepsis in C3H/HeN male mice using cecal ligation and puncture (CLP). Twenty-four hours post-CLP, during the late, immune-suppressed stage of sepsis, splenic and peritoneal Mφ were harvested, stimulated with lipopolysaccharide (LPS), and the activation of p38 MAPK assessed. In Mφ from CLP mice, p38 MAPK activity was markedly increased. To determine the extent that these changes in p38 MAPK had an impact on Mφ immune function, cells were pretreated with 10 μM of the p38 MAPK inhibitor, SB203580, or with DMSO vehicle, and subsequently stimulated with LPS. IL-10, IL-6, IL-12, and nitric oxide release was determined. Our results indicate that with LPS stimulation alone, there was a marked increase in the release of the anti-inflammatory mediator, IL-10 after CLP. Alternatively, proinflammatory IL-12 and IL-6 release was suppressed. Treatment with SB203580 suppressed the increase in IL-10 release seen after CLP, while partially restoring IL-12 secretion. IL-6 release was partially restored only in splenic macrophages treated with SB203580. To the extent that these in vitro findings could be translated to an in vivo setting, we assessed the in vivo effects of p38 MAPK inhibition on survival. Mice were given 100 mg of SB203580/kg body weight or saline vehicle (intraperitoneal) either immediately post-CLP or 12 h post-CLP. Delayed administration of SB203580 significantly improved survival, while also preventing the increased NO and IL-10 release and improving IL-12 release by macrophages. These results suggest that p38 MAPK pathway plays a critical role in the induction of an immune-suppressive macrophage phenotype, and that inhibition of p38 MAPK markedly improves survival following polymicrobial sepsis.