Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) core antigen was assayed in the plasma of children at risk for infection with HIV to determine its usefulness in the diagnosis of infection and to correlate it with the clinical stage of disease. Antigen was detected in the plasma of all children less than 15 months of age with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Two thirds of children with AIDS-related illnesses and half of children with asymptomatic infection had antigen. Although 53% of plasma specimens originating from HIV-infected children younger than 6 months of age contained antigen, only 25% of plasma specimens from children younger than 6 months who had no symptoms and none of the 10 specimens from HIV-infected newborn infants contained antigen. Half of the specimens containing core antigen also contained anticore antibody. Quantitative mean antigen levels were more likely to be elevated in children with AIDS (516 pg/ml) than in children with AIDS-related illnesses (295 pg/ml) or in those who had no symptoms (70 pg/ml). Antigen levels tended to increase over time in children with advancing clinical illness, but they tended to decrease over time after a diagnosis of AIDS was made. Antigen was detected in the plasma of 4 of 14 children without symptoms who subsequently reverted to an HIV seronegative state. We conclude that the detection of core antigen occurs with high frequency in children, even young infants, with symptomatic HIV infection. Plasma core antigen was less frequent in children without symptoms and was not detected in 10 infected children when they were tested at birth.