Children with acute bronchiolitis frequently require hospitalization and parenteral fluid therapy. Water retention due to impaired renal water excretion has been described in several pulmonary conditions in children. We studied 20 infants (3.6 +/- 2.9 months), hospitalized consecutively for acute bronchiolitis for water and electrolyte changes during the acute stage and compared them to those on recovery. Serum sodium and plasma osmolality, urinary sodium and osmolality were measured in all infants. Ten infants each were assigned alternatively to study body water compartment or renal water handling (water load excretion and free water excretion capacity) on the day of hospitalization and after recovery. Mean ( +/- SD) value of serum sodium of the infants at admission was 132.7 +/- 7.2 mEq/L which increased to 137.1 +/- 5.4 mEq/L on recovery (p < 0.05). Plasma osmolality changed from 284 +/- 14 mOsm/kg at admission to 294 +/- 10 mOsm/kg at recovery (p < 0.05). There was a significant decrease in urinary sodium from 54 +/- 39 mEq/L to 20 +/- 18 mEq/L and urinary osmolality from 415 +/- 213 mOsm/kg to 252 +/- 204 mOsm/kg at admission and at recovery, respectively. All 10 infants showed significant increase in total body water (mean +/- SD; 22.8 +/- 7.5 ml/kg) at admission as compared to that at recovery. The total body water (TBW) excess was mainly in extracellular water compartment (16.3 +/- 3.6 ml/kg). Seven of 10 infants had significant impairment in renal water excretion. Increase in maximum free water clearance of these 7 infants on recovery was 0.69 +/- 0.27 ml/min, i.e., 15 times more than that at admission. It is concluded that bronchiolitis of infancy is characterized by water retention which is caused by impaired renal water excretion. In the management of severe bronchiolitis careful attention to fluid therapy is mandatory; liberal fluid therapy may lead to water intoxication.