Whole blood cultures are used to study cytokine stimulation and release ex vivo. In the present study this method was compared with a more direct approach and a quantitative reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) was used to assess mRNA expression for IL-1 beta and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) and mRNA in whole blood. Stimulation of whole blood from normal donors with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) at various time intervals showed a parallel rise of immunogenic IL-1 beta and TNF-alpha as well as a rise of mRNA expression for IL-1 beta and TNF-alpha with peak levels for IL-1 beta after 4-6 h stimulation and for mRNA TNF-alpha expression after 2 h stimulation. These methods were used to explore cytokine production during the course of typhoid fever and after a 5 km run. In both conditions circulating cytokine concentrations were not influenced, but the TNF-alpha and IL-1 beta mRNA gene expression in circulating whole blood cells was increased in patients with typhoid fever. The LPS-stimulated production of TNF-alpha and IL-1 beta was decreased in both but there was no change for the mRNA content in whole blood for these cytokines. These findings demonstrate that RT-PCR is an attractive method to study the gene expression of cytokines in whole blood, an increased TNF-alpha and IL-1 beta gene expression is present in typhoid fever, and that the LPS stimulated downregulation of cytokines in exercise and typhoid fever may be mediated by post-transcriptional processes.