We examined the relationship of pulmonary infection and inflammation in cystic fibrosis (CF) by performing 31 bronchoalveolar lavages (BAL) in 14 young children with minimal lung disease from CF. While 10 of the 14 patients had elevated polymorphonuclear leukocyte (PMN) counts initially, only 4 had bacteria generally regarded as pathogenic in the recovered BAL fluid. Three of these 4 and 6 of the others had follow-up bronchoscopies at 6 months intervals. PMN counts remained normal for only one patient. However, pathogenic bacteria were recovered during the repeat BALs only in those patients who were colonized initially. Proinflammatory cytokines and proteinases were generally elevated, and interleukin-8 (IL-8) concentration correlated inversely with oxygen saturation (SaO2). No complications of the procedure occurred. We conclude that BAL identifies inflammation and the presence of bacteria in the lower airway at an early stage of the disease. This information may be used to guide therapy in patients too young or otherwise unable to produce sputum. These data also suggest that inflammation is present early in the course of CF lung disease before colonization and infection of the lungs with potentially pathogenic bacteria occurs. Since inflammation appears to be the earliest detectable evidence of lung disease in CF, monitoring of inflammation with BAL may serve as a useful marker of clinical benefits from new treatments in patients with minimal lung disease.