To evaluate the role of cellular activation markers and functional surface molecules in sepsis, specific immunophenotypes on peripheral blood leukocytes were studied in 40 subjects consisting of the following: (1) patients with septic shock; (2) patients with sepsis; (3) critically ill nonseptic patients; and (4) normal control subjects. These assays included phagocyte adhesion molecule CD11b expression, monocyte receptors HLA-DR and CD14, and lymphocyte activation markers IL-2R and HLA-DR. Patients with septic shock and sepsis had significantly increased neutrophil CD11b expression compared with normal subjects. Neutrophil HLA-DR expression did not significantly differ between groups. Monocytes from septic shock patients had significantly less HLA-DR expression than normal subjects and there was a trend toward a lower proportion of gated monocytes that expressed CD14 in septic shock patients. Septic shock patients had no significant increases in IL-2R or HLA-DR expression on CD3 lymphocytes compared with control subjects, but they had significantly lower numbers of total, CD3, CD4, and CD8 lymphocytes and a higher prevalence of anergy. Septic shock patients manifested an increase in neutrophil CD11b expression that may play a role in organ injury. In contrast, a more specific decrease in monocyte expression of functional antigens is also observed in patients with septic shock that may have implications for immunologic defense mechanisms.