Summary Hemophagocytic syndromes (hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, HLH) represent a severe hyperinflammatory condition with the cardinal symptoms prolonged fever, cytopenias, hepatosplenomegaly, and hemophagocytosis by activated, morphologically benign macrophages. Biochemical markers include elevated ferritin and triglycerides, and low fibrinogen. Whereas in children several inherited immune deficiencies may lead to this syndrome, most adults with HLH have no known underlying immune defect. Nevertheless, impaired function of natural killer (NK) cells and cytotoxic T -cells (CTL) is characteristic for both genetic and acquired forms of HLH. Frequent triggers are infectious agents, mostly viruses of the herpes group. Malignant lymphomas, especially in adults, may be associated with HLH. A special form of HLH in rheumatic diseases is called macrophage-activation syndrome. Initially HLH may masquerade as a normal infection since all symptoms, even though less pronounced, may also be found in immune competent patients. Patients with HLH, however, cannot control the hyperinflammatory response which, if untreated, is fatal in genetic cases and in a high percentage of acquired cases. Awareness of the clinical symptoms and of the diagnostic criteria of HLH is important to start life-saving therapy with immunosuppressive/ immunomodulatory agents in time.