To evaluate the diagnostic value of quantitative bacterial culture of bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid obtained by fibreoptic bronchoscopy, 67 consecutive immunocompetent adult patients admitted to hospital with community-acquired lower respiratory tract infections from September 1997 to May 1998 were investigated. Results were compared to the findings in eight healthy control persons investigated in February 1998. There was no difference between study patients and control persons when quantitative culture of total cumulative bacterial findings or bacteria categorized as members of the oropharyngeal normal flora were compared. The culture of normal flora in bronchial washings probably reflects contamination of the lower airways with secretions from upper arways by the fibreoptic procedure itself, as fractionated sampling showed a 10-fold reduct on in quantitative culture results when a primary bronchial washing was compared to a secondary sampling from the same bronchus in the control group. Twenty-four (36%) of 67 patients were cultured as positive in the study group while all control persons were cultured as negative for bacteria categorized as potential pathogens. With a threshold value for positive culture of 10(4) cfu ml(-1) the specificity of lavage culture of potential pathogenic bacteria in relation to actual lower airway infection was 100%. Therefore, quantitative bacterial culture of potential pathogenic bacteria in BAL fluid is very specific but only positive in about one-third of unselected immunocompetent adult patients with a lower respiratory tract infection.