Cytokines (Greek:Cyto from Greek “κύτταρο” kyttaro “cell” + Kines from Greek “κίνηση” kinisi “movement”) are a broad and loose category of small proteins (~5–20kDa) that are important in cell signaling. They are released by cells and affect the behavior of other cells, and sometimes the releasing cell itself. Cytokines includechemokines, interferons, interleukins, lymphokines, tumour necrosis factor but generally not hormones or growth factors (despite some terminologic overlap). Cytokines are produced by a broad range of cells, including immune cells like macrophages, B lymphocytes, T lymphocytes and mast cells, as well as endothelial cells,fibroblasts, and various stromal cells; a given cytokine may be produced by more than one type of cell.

They act through receptors, and are especially important in the immune system; cytokines modulate the balance between humoral and cell-based immune responses, and they regulate the maturation, growth, and responsiveness of particular cell populations. Some cytokines enhance or inhibit the action of other cytokines in complex ways.

They are different from hormones, which are also important cell signaling molecules, in that hormones circulate in much lower concentrations and hormones tend to be made by specific kinds of cells.

They are important in health and disease, specifically in host responses to infection, immune responses, inflammation, trauma, sepsis, cancer, and reproduction.