Abstract Background Immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome (IRIS) is an important complication of HAART in sub-Saharan Africa, where opportunistic infections (OIs) including mycobacteria and cryptococcus are common. The immune system's role in HIV infected patients is complex with cytokine expression strongly influencing HIV infection and replication. Methods We determined the expression patterns of 10 cytokines by Luminex multi-analyte profiling in 17 IRIS nested case-control pairs participating in a prospective South African cohort initiating anti-retroviral therapy. Results Interferon-gamma (IFN-γ) expression was significantly elevated in IRIS cases compared to controls (median 9.88 pg/ml versus 2.68 pg/ml, respectively, P = 0.0057), while other cytokines displayed non-significant differences in expression. Significant correlation was observed between IL-6, IL-10, and IFN-γ expression in the IRIS patients. Conclusions Significantly increased expression levels of IFN-γ suggest that this cytokine possibly plays a role in IRIS pathology and is a potential diagnostic marker.