Prognosis of patients with early inflammatory arthritis (EIA) is highly variable. The aim of this study was to compare, longitudinally and cross-sectionally, the levels of cytokine-expressing cells in peripheral blood (PB) from patients with EIA to those in established rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and healthy controls (HC). PB mononuclear cells from HC (n = 30), patients with EIA (n = 20) or RA (n = 38) were stimulated with phorbol myristate acetate (PMA)/ionomycin for 3 h, and stained for cell markers and cytokines. Serum cytokines and chemokines were measured by Luminex. Patients with EIA were reassessed at 6 and 12 months. The percentage of interleukin (IL)-17+interferon (IFN)-γ−CD4+ T cells [T helper type 17 (Th17)] was increased in RA and EIA versus HC. Serum IL-1β, IL-2, IL-4 IL-17 and macrophage inflammatory protein (MIP)-1α were increased in RA and EIA versus HC. IL-1Ra, IL-15 and IFN-α were increased in EIA versus HC. IL-6 and tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α was increased in RA but not EIA versus HC. Disease activity scores in EIA patients improved over 12 months' treatment. Th17 percentage at baseline was correlated with both rheumatoid factor (RF) titre and functional deficit at 12 months. Baseline levels of serum granulocyte–macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), IL-6 and IL-8 were correlated with Larsen score at 12 months. There were no significant changes in cytokine-expressing CD4+T cells over time, although the percentage of IL-6+ monocytes increased. IL-17+CD4+ T cells and serum IL-17 levels are increased in EIA. IL-6-expressing monocytes increase during the first year of disease, irrespective of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) therapy. We observed incomplete clinical responses, suggesting EIA patients need more intensive early therapy.