Mice were subjected to sepsis by cecal ligation and puncture to determine whether macrophages from endotoxin-tolerant C3H/HeJ mice are also activated systemically to release inflammatory monokines associated with septic mortality. Blood levels of both tumor necrosis factor and interleukin 6 were significantly elevated during the first 1 to 4 hours of sepsis as compared with sham controls. Peritoneal macrophages from septic mice exhibited a marked spontaneous release of interleukin 1, interleukin 6, and tumor necrosis factor at 1 hour. However, the addition of endotoxin to macrophage cultures taken from septic mice had no further stimulatory effect. Sham controls alternatively showed no significant innate monokine release, but their macrophages did release increased monokine numbers in response to endotoxin. These results indicate that the spontaneous macrophage release of these monokines is comparable with that previously observed in endotoxin-sensitive mice, suggesting a common mechanism by which macrophages are primed by traumatic injury by an agent other than endotoxin to release monokines during sepsis. Thus, the administration of agents that decrease or prevent the deleterious effects of systemic inflammatory mediators during sepsis could be useful adjuvants in those clinical situations where the bacterial origin is unknown. © 1992, American Medical Association. All rights reserved.