This study investigates the distribution of immunocompetent cells in the ectocervix, and cytokine and immunoglobulin (Ig) levels in cervicovaginal secretions to determine whether they are altered in asymptomatic human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. Ectocervical biopsies from 10 HIV+ and 10 presumed HIV-ve women were studied by immunocytochemistry. Levels of Igs in cervicovaginal secretions were quantified by radial immunodiffusion (RID) and cytokine levels by ELISA. HIV+ women had significantly increased numbers of CD8+ lymphocytes resulting in reversal of the CD4:CD8 ratio. There was a significant increase in the proportion of activated CD8+ HLA-DR+ and CD4+ HLA-DR + lymphocytes, but not in CD8+ TIA-1+ cells. The epithelium of the cervix from HIV+ subjects showed a significant increase in both numbers of macrophages (CD68+) and proportions of activated macrophages (CD68+ HLA-DR+) compared to normal. The stroma contained increased proportions of inductive (D1+) and suppressive (D1+ D7+) macrophages but a decrease in effector phagocyte (D7+) proportions and Langerhans' cells. Significantly lower tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α levels were observed in cervicovaginal secretions from HIV+ subjects. IgG levels were 4 times higher and IgM levels twice higher in cervicovaginal secretions from HIV+ women, compared to results from normal subjects. These results suggest a response within the CD8+ cells in HIV+ women, yet these cells may have a low cytolytic capacity. The raised proportions of HLA-DR+ and D1+ CD4+ macrophages could act as antigen-presenting cells (APC) for CD4+ CD45RO+ lymphocytes, and represent a local acquired response. However, the close juxtaposition of these cells offers the potential for them to act as a local reservoir of virus and promote its proliferation. The increase of IgG over sIgA in secretions of HIV+ subjects provides evidence suggesting a dysregulation of local humoral immunity.