Fourteen heart transplant recipients were monitored for human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) infection based on determination of antigenemia, viremia, and DNAemia (by polymerase chain reaction [PCR]) in peripheral blood polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNL). Three patients had symptomatic primary, 10 had recurrent (3 asymptomatic), and 1 (seronegative) had no HCMV infection. Severe clinical symptoms appeared when levels of viremia/antigenemia were greater than 50 infected PMNL/2 x 10(5) cells examined. Of 200 blood samples examined, 93 (46.5%) were positive for viremia/antigenemia and DNAemia, whereas 48 (24.0%) were positive for DNAemia only; 59 (29.5%) were negative in all assays. Follow-up of HCMV infections in heart transplant recipients showed that PCR can detect viral appearance in blood 7-10 days earlier than assays for antigenemia/viremia. On the other hand, viral disappearance from blood, as assessed by PCR, occurred weeks or months later than revealed by other assays. Detection of virus by PCR only was never associated with overt HCMV-related clinical symptoms. Of the 8 symptomatic patients treated with ganiclovir, 2 became PCR-negative at the end of treatment and 1 cleared virus from blood in the following weeks, whereas 5 showed persistent or recurrent infection.