Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) has potent protective activity against sepsis and increases the survival rate of septic rats and mice. The present study was planned to evaluate the effect of VIP on mast cell activity, histamine and methylhistamine levels and oxidative stress in the liver and kidneys of septic rats. The effect of VIP was compared to that of nitric oxide synthesis inhibition, previously tested extensively in septic shock models, with doubtful benefit. The present study showed that endotoxic shock did not lead to oxidative stress in either liver or kidney of the rats. On the other hand, mast cells, based on their location, displayed functional heterogeneity to the septic insults. VIP possibly modulated the specific reactions of the tissues to mediators released from mast cells during septic shock. The most prominent effect of VIP as compared to nitric oxide synthesis inhibition was related to mast cells. In conclusion, the prevention of mast cell reactivity by VIP could be a potential therapeutic strategy in controlling septic shock. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.