Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) DNA can be detected in different compartments of human milk. A protocol for the preparation of milk whey free of fat and cells for the detection of human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) by nested PCR is presented. This is based upon the experience of the separation of more than 200 milk specimens of healthy seropositive breast feeding mothers. HCMV DNA could be detected in freshly centrifuged and filtrated milk whey specimens without contamination by cellular DNA. In limiting dilution experiments using HCMV plasmid DNA, the effect of different DNA extraction procedures from native milk and milk whey on the detection limit of cytomegaloviral DNA was demonstrated. About 200 viral genome equivalents/ml in milk whey or native milk were detectable by classical organic phenol/chloroform extraction or a spin column method, respectively. The detection of viral DNA in milk cells depended on a minimum number of milk cells (10(5)-2 x 10(5)) available for DNA extraction. In contrast to the findings of cytomegaloviral DNA in native sera or plasma of immunosuppressed patients we failed to amplify low level viral DNA from native breast milk by nested PCR due to an inhibition of Taq polymerase by lipid components. Finally, the course of cell associated and cell free DNAlactia was monitored. Analyzing sequential milk specimens, in some cases the presence of HCMV DNA in colostrum could be demonstrated. DNAlactia of milk cells and whey was partially discordant. Onset (week 1-4 after delivery) and duration (2 weeks up to more than 3 months) of DNAlactia showed distinct individual patterns. The methods described, allow further analysis of the mechanisms involved in the postnatal HCMV transmission by breast feeding seropositive mothers.