We examined the effect of bacterial pneumonia on the magnitude of circulating plasma HIV RNA in HIV-infected patients. Serum samples from 13 adult HIV-infected patients (median CD4 count = 83 cells/microl) were assayed for HIV RNA using the reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction assay (a) before bacterial pneumonia, (b) during the acute phase, and (c) after the recovery from the disease. Patients remained on constant antiretroviral therapy: HIV RNA was detected in all samples tested. The medians before, during, and after bacterial pneumonia were 60,000 copies per ml, 245,000 copies per ml, and 84,000 copies per ml, respectively. All 13 patients had increased HIV RNA levels on developing pneumonia. There was a decline in the level of HIV RNA with recovery from pneumonia in 12 of 13 patients. The difference between the HIV RNA levels before and after pneumonia was not significant, nor was there significant difference in the CD4 counts before and after pneumonia. In conclusion, bacterial pneumonia is associated with a consistent, transient increase in HIV RNA of variable magnitude in AIDS patients. Interpretation of HIV RNA changes for clinical management of AIDS patients must take into account this reversible elevation during infections.