© 2020, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited. Macrophage activation syndrome (MAS), or secondary hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), is a cytokine storm syndrome associated with multi-organ system dysfunction and high mortality rates. Laboratory and clinical features resemble primary HLH, which arises in infancy (1 in 50,000 live births) from homozygous mutations in various genes critical to the perforin-mediated cytolytic pathway employed by NK cells and cytotoxic CD8 T lymphocytes. MAS/secondary HLH is about ten times more common and typically presents beyond infancy extending into adulthood. The genetics of MAS are far less defined than for familial HLH. However, the distinction between familial HLH and MAS/secondary HLH is blurred by the finding of heterozygous perforin-pathway mutations in MAS patients, which may function as hypomorphic or partial dominant-negative alleles and contribute to disease pathogenesis. In addition, mutations in a variety of other pathogenic pathways have been noted in patients with MAS/secondary HLH. Many of these genetically disrupted pathways result in a similar cytokine storm syndrome, and can be broadly categorized as impaired viral control (e.g., SH2P1A), dysregulated inflammasome activity (e.g., NLRC4), other immune defects (e.g., IKBKG), and dysregulated metabolism (e.g., LIPA). Collectively these genetic lesions likely combine with states of chronic inflammation, as seen in various rheumatic diseases (e.g., still disease), with or without identified infections, to result in MAS pathology as explained by the threshold model of disease. This emerging paradigm may ultimately support genetic risk stratification for high-risk chronic and even acute inflammatory disorders. Moving forward, continued whole-exome and -genome sequencing will likely identify novel MAS gene associations, as well as noncoding mutations altering levels of gene expression.