Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) is the most common life-threatening opportunistic infection among patients with the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Because retrospective studies suggested that bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) compared favorably to lung biopsy in the diagnosis of PCP, we prospectively evaluated the utility of BAL in 40 consecutive patients with AIDS or risk of AIDS who presented with respiratory complaints. The BAL revealed P carinii in 36 of 42 episodes of pneumonia (86 percent) among 40 patients. Clinical follow-up of the six patients whose BAL was negative for PCP suggested only one possible false negative BAL for PCP. Therefore, BAL detected PCP in 36 of 37 patients for a sensitivity of 97 percent. BAL detected cytomegalovirus in 15 of 38 patients, as well as Mycobacterium avium-intracellulare and Cryptococcus (each in one patient). By virtue of accuracy and lack of morbidity demonstrated in our study, BAL should supplant lung biopsy techniques in the evaluation of AIDS patients with pulmonary symptoms.