The purpose of this study was to determine the phenotype profiles of immune effector cells and the concentrations of immunoglobulins in the lower respiratory tract of non-smoking patients with alcoholic liver cirrhosis (ALC). Nine nonsmoking patients with liver biopsy-proved ALC (grade B or C cirrhosis in Child's classification), free of clinical pulmonary symptoms, and with normal chest roentgenogram were included in the study. The control group included 12 healthy nonsmokers. Each patient had fiberoptic bronchoscopy with bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL). The number of T cells and of lymphocyte subpopulations was determined by immunofluorescence studies using monoclonal antibodies that were specific for CD3, CD4, and CD8 markers. Patients with ALC exhibited a dramatically increased percentage of CD8+ cells in BAL that induced a low CD4/CD8 ratio (0.96 +/- 0.15 vs 1.8 +/- 0.12 in healthy controls). Further characterization of lymphocyte subsets' dual immunofluorescence analysis demonstrated that most of the CD8+ alveolar lymphocytes had a phenotype of cytotoxic cells (CD8+ CD11b-; 48 percent +/- 13 in ALC vs 10 percent +/- 5 in controls). ALC was associated with an appreciable alveolar-capillary "leak" as demonstrated by a significant increase in BAL fluid albumin. In addition, the concentrations of immunoglobulins in BAL fluid were significantly greater in ALC than in controls. However, the relative (to albumin) coefficient of excretion of IgG, A, and M in and alpha 2-macroglobulin BAL fluid was not significantly different between controls and ALC. Our results indicate that increased proportions of CB8+ and especially of CD8+ CD11b- cells are a common feature in the lower respiratory tract of nonsmoking patients with ALC. These changes may be of potential functional importance in the regulation of the local pulmonary immune response in ALC.