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Surgical trauma and anaesthetics may cause immune suppression, predisposing patients to postoperative infections. Furthermore, stress such as surgery and pain per se is associated with immune suppression which, in animal models, leads to an increased susceptibility to infection and tumour spread. Thus, by modulating the neurohumoral stress response, anaesthesia may indirectly affect the immune system of surgical patients. In particular, regional anaesthesia attenuates this stress response and the associated effects on cellular and humoral immunity. Additionally, anaesthetics may directly affect the functions of immune-competent cells. However, the reported effects of commercial preparations of, for example, propofol, etomidate and midazolam are highly dependent on the applied solvent. Immunosuppressive effects may be particularly relevant in the intensive care unit when anaesthetics are used as long-term sedatives. There is a striking body of evidence that long-term exposure to certain sedatives is paralleled by infectious complications. On the other hand, anti-inflammatory effects of anaesthetics may be therapeutically beneficial in distinct situations such as those involving ischaemia/reperfusion injury or the systemic inflammatory response syndrome. Consequently, sedatives should be administered with careful regard to their respective potential immunomodulatory properties, the clinical situation, and the immunity status of the critically ill patient.