The lungs of patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) are frequently affected by opportunistic and nonopportunistic infections and pulmonary localizations of Kaposi's sarcoma. The aim of this study was to verify whether, in patients with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections, immunologic pulmonary abnormalities set the stage for the lung complications. For this purpose, a phenotypic and functional characterization of lymphocytes recovered from the bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid of 24 patients with clinical symptoms and signs of HIV infections was performed (six patients with constitutional disease, five patients with neurologic manifestations, and 13 patients with full-blown AIDS). Our data showed that (1) in patients with HIV, the percentage and absolute number of pulmonary CD8 cells were significantly increased over those in control subjects (in 25% of these patients, mostly with full-blown AIDS, CD8 cells sustained an alveolitis); (2) lung CD4 cells were reduced in percentage but not in absolute number, with the exception of patients with AIDS in whom a significant decrease of the absolute number of BAL CD4 cells has been found (further phenotypic analysis of CD4 lymphocytes showed a reduction of the expression of T4A, B, and E with respect to the T4, T4C, T4D, and T4F epitopes); (3) although the number of BAL cells bearing NK-related determinants was increased, we were unable to demonstrate any in vitro natural killer cell activity. We suggest that the impairment of a proper NK activity in the lungs of these patients might be central to the mechanisms leading to the in situ immunodeficiency state and to the pulmonary complications characterizing AIDS.