A series of experiments was performed to assess the alterations in immune status in vivo that are associated with differences in the amount and duration of ethanol intake. Using a nonspecific delayed cutaneous hypersensitivity-like response to the intradermal injection of phytohemagglutinin, the area of induration (skin test response) was significantly enhanced (p = 0.008) after low-dose ethanol (0.5 g/kg) administered daily by gastric gavage for 5 days. High-dose ethanol (6.0 g/kg) significantly diminished this response (p = 0.03). Using an experimental model of Mycobacterium bovis hepatitis, the host immune response was also altered in a biphasic manner after chronic, 28-day ethanol consumption. With this model 0.43 +/- 0.03 g/kg/day (mean +/- SEM) of ethanol (low dose) was associated with a 40% improvement in the removal of the organisms from liver tissue (p = 0.002). High dose (12.1 +/- 0.5 g/kg/day) impaired removal, resulting in a 55% increase in the number of viable organisms (p = 0.001). The levels of three cytokines, MIF, TNF-alpha, and IL-2, known to be involved in the modulation of the host response to mycobacterial infections, were measured in sera after the infection. The serum levels of these cytokines in response to infection did not correlate with this biphasic response to different alcohol dose levels.