Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers. It is believed that tumor production of various immune suppressive mediators contributes to massively impaired immune functions, but the underlying signal transduction pathways are mostly unknown. Phosphorylation levels of MAP (mitogen-activated protein) kinase p38 were analyzed in permanent cell lines as well as in solid tumor tissue of HNSCC using flow cytometry and SDS-PAGE. Cytokine secretion was determined using the Cytometric Bead Array Flex Set system. MAP kinase p38 was shown to be activated in HNSCC by phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate. Activation of p38 led to decreased cell proliferation and increased secretion of cytokines IL-6 and IL-8 in HNSCC. Our data provide novel insights into the origin of the HNSCC microenvironment. A better understanding of these molecular mechanisms in HNSCC is essential for novel drug development and improvement of the clinical perspective of this tumor type.