Adhesion molecules appear to play a pivotal role in tissue damage secondary to the inflammatory process. Besides neutrophiland endothelial-bound adhesion molecules, soluble forms have been detected in the circulating blood. They seem to be good markers of endothelial damage, but they may also have other biological functions. Plasma concentrations of soluble adhesion molecules (endothelial leucocyte adhesion molecules (sELAM-1), intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (sICAM-1), vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (sVCAM-1), and granule membrane protein 140 (sGMP-140) were serially measured over 5 days by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) in 45 consecutive trauma patients. These received, by random allocation, only either hydroxyethylstarch solution 10% (mean molecular weight 200 000 daltons) (n = 15) or human albumin 20% (n = 15) for volume therapy. Another 15 patients without defined volume therapy received pentoxifylline continuously (1.2mg.kg-1.h-1). Measurements were carried out on the day of admission to the intensive care unit (baseline) and during the next 5 days. At baseline, plasma concentrations of all adhesion molecules were similar in all groups. In the hydroxyethyl starch group, sELAM-1 and sICAM-1 concentrations decreased significantly (p < 0.05) reaching normal values during the study period whereas the mean (SD) values increased in the pentoxifylline group (sELAM-1: 71.1 (16.7) to 91.6 (17.8) ng.ml-1) and the albumin group (sICAM-1: 400 (81) to 749 (101) ng.ml-1) (p < 0.05). sVCAM-1 increased outside the normal range only in the human albumin group (to 760 ± 69 ng.ml-1) (p < 0.05). sGMP-140 plasma concentration increased only in those receiving albumin (432 (85) to 550 (93) ng.ml-1) and this was significantly different to the other groups (p < 0.05). None of the other haemodynamic or laboratory factors could be correlated with plasma concentrations of the adhesion molecules. We conclude that colume therapy with hydroxyethyl starch resulted in a decrease in circulating adhesion molecules in our trauma patients. In contrast, volume therapy with albumin did not exert this effect. Continuous infusion of pentoxifylline did not have a beneficial modulating action on circulating adhesion molecules.