To compare the usefulness of specimens obtained by bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) and using a protected specimen brush (PSB) in the diagnosis of nosocomial pneumonia, both procedures were performed via fiberoptic bronchoscopy just after death in a series of 20 ventilated patients who had not developed pneumonia before the terminal phase of their disease and who had no recent changes in antimicrobial therapy. These results were compared with both histologic and microbiologic postmortem lung features in the same area. The total number of bacteria obtained by culture of lung segments and the latters' histologic grade were closely correlated (rho = 0.79, p < 0.0001). PSB and BAL quantitative culture results were strongly correlated with lung tissue values (rho = 0.67 and 0.75, respectively; p < 0.0001). Using discriminative values of > or = 10(3) and > or = 10(4) bacteria/ml to define positive PSB and BAL cultures, respectively, these techniques identified lung segments yielding > or = 10(4) bacteria/g tissue with sensitivities of 82 and 91% and specificities of 89 and 78%, respectively. Moreover, upon direct observation, the percentage of BAL cells containing intracellular bacteria was closely correlated with the total number of bacteria obtained from corresponding lung samples (p < 0.001). These findings indicate that bronchoscopic PSB and BAL samples very reliably identify both qualitatively and quantitatively microorganisms present in lung segments with bacterial pneumonia, even when the infection develops as a superinfection in a patient already receiving antimicrobial treatment for several days.