To characterize the evolution of inflammation in the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and test the hypothesis that sustained alveolar inflammation is associated with a poor outcome in patients with ARDS, we performed fiberoptic bronchoscopy and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) in 125 patients and compared BAL cells and protein concentrations in survivors and nonsurvivors. ARDS followed sepsis syndrome in 35 patients, major trauma in 41, and other causes in 49. When possible, BAL was performed on Days 3, 7, and 14 after the onset of ARDS. Sixty-five patients (52%) had more than one BAL. We first performed analyses on each BAL day using information from all 212 BAL in the 125 patients (cross-sectional analysis). All patients had increased leukocytes and total protein in the first BAL (Day 3 after onset of ARDS). In patients with ARDS following sepsis, the percentage of BAL polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN) was higher on Day 7 (p = 0.11) and particularly Day 14 (p = 0.02) in patients who died; there was a consistent trend of a higher PMN concentration on all days in patients who died then in those who lived. In patients with ARDS following trauma and other risks, however, BAL PMN measures did not distinguish survivors from patients who died. Analysis of serial data from the patients with more than one BAL showed that alveolar macrophages (AM) increased in survivors of ARDS, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of total cells; this pattern was most pronounced in the sepsis patients. The cross-sectional data analysis suggests that sustained alveolar inflammation occurs frequently in patients with ARDS following sepsis and is associated with a high mortality.