The Jarisch-Herxheimer Reaction (J-HR) is a clinical syndrome occurring soon after the first adequate dose of an antimicrobial drug to treat infectious diseases such as Lyme disease, syphilis, and relapsing fever. Previous attempts to identify factors mediating this reaction, that may cause death, have been unsuccessful. We conducted a prospective trial in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 17 patients treated with penicillin for proven louse-borne relapsing fever due to Borrelia recurrentis to evaluate the association of symptoms with plasma levels of tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interleukins 6, and 8 (IL-6 and -8). 14 of the 17 (82%) patients experienced a typical J-HR consisting of rigors, a rise in body temperature (1.06 +/- 0.2 degrees C) peaking at 2 h, leukopenia (7.4 +/- 0.6 x 10(-3) cells/mm3) at 4 h, a slight decrease, and then rise of mean arterial blood pressure. Spirochetes were cleared from blood in 5 +/- 1 h after penicillin. There were no fatalities, but constitutional symptoms were severe during J-HR. Plasma TNF, IL-6, and -8 were raised in several patients on admission, but a seven-, six-, and fourfold elevation of these plasma cytokine concentrations over admission levels was detected, respectively, occurring in transient form coincidental with observed pathophysiological changes of J-HR. Elevated plasma cytokine levels were not detected in the three patients who did not suffer J-HR. We conclude that the severe pathophysiological changes characterizing the J-HR occurring on penicillin treatment of louse-borne relapsing fever are closely associated with transient elevation of plasma TNF, IL-6, and -8 concentrations.