Activated lymphocytes, as identified by HLA-DR expression, associated with acute Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-induced infectious mononucleosis (IM) were shown to be a heterogeneous population containing significantly elevated cytotoxic/suppressor (CD8) T cells, natural killer (CD16) cells and helper (CD4) T cells. CD8 T cells were the primary activated population representing 24.5% of the total lymphocyte population. The activated CD4 T cells and natural killer cells accounted for 6.7% and 3.5% of the total lymphocyte population, respectively. Analysis of serum soluble interleukin 2 receptors (IL-2R) demonstrated significantly (p less than 0.001) elevated levels in the serum of acute IM patients compared with normal controls. Elevated levels of serum IL-2R were correlated (r = 0.67) with increased percentages of Leu 2a+/HLA-DR+T cells (i.e., activated CD8 T cells). Patients with X-linked lymphoproliferative syndrome and virus-associated hemophagocytic syndrome, two syndromes associated with severe acute EBV infections, demonstrated the most dramatic increase in serum IL-2R levels. These data demonstrate that EBV is associated with intense immune stimulation and that during acute IM activated lymphocytes, other than the CD8 T cells, may contribute to the immune response to EBV.