Infection with human T-cell leukemia virus type II (HTLV-II) has been associated with rare chronic T-cell malignancies and has recently been demonstrated in a significant proportion of American intravenous drug abusers (IVDA). Identification of an HTLV-II-infected cohort of IVDA has allowed analysis of the HTLV-II carrier state. We analyzed clinical, hematologic, and immunologic parameters in 21 HTLV-II- infected IVDA, two HTLV-I-infected IVDA, and 20 uninfected control IVDA identified by serologic screening and by analysis of peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) DNA by polymerase chain reaction (PCR). An elevated absolute lymphocyte count was observed in 4 of 21 HTLV-II- infected IVDA, 1 of 2 HTLV-I-infected IVDA, and 1 of 20 control IVDA. CD8+ T-cell elevation was observed in three of four HTLV-II IVDA with lymphocytosis and one of two HTLV-I-infected IVDA. Activation of CD8+ T cells in HTLV-II-infected IVDA was suggested by an overall increase in CD8+/HLA-DR+ lymphocytes. Cell fractionation and analysis by PCR of HTLV-II-infected carrier blood showed high levels of HTLV-II provirus in unfractionated PBMC and purified T cells and little or no detectable HTLV-II DNA in B cells or monocytes, indicating that T cells were the most likely target of infection in vivo. The frequency of HTLV-II- infected cells was estimated at approximately 1 in 500 cells or less using dilution analysis by PCR of PBMC DNA. Most HTLV-II-infected IVDA are asymptomatic and have no overt hematologic or immunologic abnormalities, although some manifest benign lymphocytosis.