In clinically quiescent SLE hypergammaglobulinaemia, presence of autoantibodies, and increased soluble IL-2 receptors (sIL-2R) have been reported, suggesting persistent B as well as T cell activation. In contrast, the primary immune response to test antigens is markedly decreased. To analyse these phenomena at a cellular level, we undertook a cross-sectional study on 13 non-active SLE patients and 15 controls. We determined the composition of lymphocyte subsets with special attention to activation markers (CD25, HLA-DR, CD38) and the presence of naive T cells (CD45RO-), and related those findings to serological parameters. In non-active SLE patients the expression of activation markers on B cells and T cells was higher than in normal controls (P < or = 0.02), but was not interrelated. Percentages of activated B cells in SLE were related to levels of total IgG (P < 0.02) and IgM (P < 0.02) but not to anti-dsDNA, suggesting a disordered immune system also in clinically quiescent SLE. Numbers of CD4+ cells (P < 0.001) and CD4+CD45RO- cells (P < 0.05) were decreased. The latter finding might explain the anergy to primary test antigens in clinically quiescent SLE.