To characterize changes of Th1/Th2 cytokine production by peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) that occur during the course of HIV infection by cytoplasmic cytokine staining on single cell level. Mitogen-stimulated PBMC from 16 healthy donors, 18 HIV-1-infected individuals without AIDS and 14 patients with AIDS were stained intracellularly with fluorescein-labelled MAb against interleukin (IL)-2, IL-4, IL-10 and interferon (IFN)-gamma. Additionally, co-staining of CD4+ T-cell, CD8+ T-cell, natural killer (NK) cell, B-cell and monocytic markers was performed. Fluorescence staining was analysed by three-colour flow-cytometry. A reduced percentage of IL-2 and IFN-gamma (Th1 type)-producing cells among CD4+ T cells from HIV-1-infected individuals could be demonstrated. There was a continuous decrease of IFN-gamma-producing CD4+ T cells in the course of HIV infection and a dramatic reduction of IL-2-expressing cells among CD4+ T cells in patients with AIDS. In contrast to Th1 cytokines, the frequency of Th2 cytokine expressing cells among CD4+ T cells increased in HIV-infected individuals. The maximum frequency of IL-4-expressing cells among CD4+ T cells was seen in HIV-infected individuals without AIDS, whereas the rate of IL-10-producing cells was highest in patients with AIDS. In HIV-infected individuals no significant proportion of Th0 cells expressing both Th1 and Th2 cytokines was detectable. In CD8+ T cells the percentage of IL-2 was expressing cells decreased continuously accompanied by a strong increase of the frequency of IFN-gamma-producing cells. The decreased percentage of cells expressing IL-2 and IFN-gamma in conjunction with an increased proportion of IL-4- and IL-10-producing cells among the CD4+ T cells in HIV-1-infected individuals demonstrate a Th1 to Th2 cytokine shift in the course of HIV infection on a single cell level. There was no evidence of a Th1 to Th0 cytokine shift. In addition to the loss of CD4+ T cells in HIV infection, the qualitative changes of Th1/Th2 cytokine expression may serve as a marker for progressive failure of cell-mediated immunity.