Proinflammatory cytokines exert a number of important effects on vascular reactivity. At one end of the spectrum, certain cytokines may induce vascular paresis leading to profound vasodilatation and hyporesponsiveness to constrictor stimuli. This may be relevant to the pathogenesis of septic shock and other types of inflammatory vasodilatation. At the other end of the spectrum, inflammatory cytokines can impair endothelium-dependent dilatation and the endothelium may lose its ability to respond to circulating hormones or autacoids. This effect may case a predisposition to vessel spasm, thrombosis or atherogenesis. Studies in human vessels suggest that interleukin-1 is particularly important as a mediator of inflammatory dilatation; the underlying mechanisms include induction of the inducible isoform of nitric oxide synthase in vascular smooth muscle, or over-production of nitric oxide from the endothelial isoform of nitric oxide synthase. Induction of the enzyme GTP cyclohydrolase 1 and consequent production of tetrahydrobiopterin contributes to the increase in the activity of endothelial nitric oxide synthase. In contrast, tumour necrosis factor-α considerably impairs endothelium-dependent relaxation. The mechanisms of these effects are not yet fully understood, but tumour necrosis factor can induce endothelial dysfunction in human endothelial cells in culture, and human blood vessels in vitro and in vivo. The implications of these observations for cardiovascular disease are discussed.