A postulated role of the contact system in anaphylactic reactions to insect stings was investigated. During prospective, in-hospital sting challenge, we collected serial blood samples from five normal volunteers and 16 patients with a history of insect-sting anaphylaxis. Activation of the contact system was assessed by measuring plasma levels of factor XIIa-C1-inhibitor and kallikrein-C1-inhibitor complexes as well as those of cleaved high molecular weight kininogen (HK). In addition, antigenic levels of (pre)kallikrein, factor XII, and HK were measured. No significant changes in contact system parameters were observed in any of the five volunteers or the four patients who did not develop an anaphylactic reaction after sting challenge. In contrast, significant changes in contact system parameters occurred in 7 of the 12 patients with anaphylactic symptoms after challenge. Peak levels of either C1-inhibitor complex were found 5 minutes after the onset of anaphylactic symptoms. The increase in C1-inhibitor was most pronounced in the 4 patients with angioedema, 2 of which also developed shock. However, activation of HK was observed in all four patients with angioedema, the two patients with shock but no angioedema, as well as in 1 of the remaining 6 patients with anaphylactic symptoms other than angioedema or shock. Thus, activation products of the contact system may be involved in the pathogenesis of angioedema and shock in insect- sting anaphylaxis.