In order to analyze the etiology, cytological and biochemical characteristics, and outcome of pleural disease in patients infected with HIV, the medical records of 86 HIV-positive patients with pleural effusion were reviewed. Controls were 106 HIV-negative patients with parapneumonic or tuberculous effusion. Most HIV-positive patients were intravenous drug abusers (95.3%). Pleural effusions in HIV-positive patients were caused by infections in 76 (89.4%) cases. Parapneumonic effusion was diagnosed in 59 patients and tuberculous pleuritis in 15 patients. Staphylococcus aureus was the most frequently isolated bacteria. Parameters for differentiating complicated cases of parapneumonic exudate from uncomplicated cases, such as pleural fluid pH < 7.20 (sensitivity 80% vs. 84.3%), pleural fluid glucose < 35 mg/dl (sensitivity 45% vs. 56.25%) pleural fluid LDH > 1600 UI/l (sensitivity 85% vs. 62.50%), showed similar sensitivity in HIV-positive and HIV-negative patients. Monocytes in pleural fluid were significantly decreased in tuberculous pleuritis in HIV-positive patients (506 +/- 425 vs. 1014 +/- 1196 monocytes/ml, p < 0.05). No significant differences were detected in the outcome of HIV-positive and HIV-negative patients with pleural disease. It can be concluded that the pleural effusion was of predominantly infectious etiology in HIV-positive patients from populations with a high prevalence of intravenous drug abuse. Neither the biochemical parameters in pleural fluid nor the outcome differed significantly between HIV-positive and HIV-negative patients.