Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) bronchiolitis is partially an immune-mediated disease in which RSV-specific T cells play a predominant role. The peripheral blood T cell response was studied in patients with RSV bronchiolitis in order to detect evidence for T cell redistribution during natural RSV infection and if so, which subsets are involved. 18 patients with RSV bronchiolitis and 13 control patients were studied. The white blood cell count, the number of T cells and T cell subsets in blood on admission and after 1 week were measured. The absolute count of natural killer cells and gamma delta + T cells on admission were significantly lower in RSV patients in comparison with the control group. During the course of RSV bronchiolitis CD8+ T cells and IL-2 receptor-positive T cells increased significantly. In the ventilated patients the total lymphocytes and the number of T cells and several T cell subsets with surface molecules compatible with an activation state of the cell were decreased in comparison with the non-ventilated RSV patients on admission. During RSV bronchiolitis, consistent shifts in T cell subsets can be demonstrated in the peripheral blood compatible with redistribution from the circulation probably towards the lungs. These findings are more pronounced in patients with severe disease.