Atopic keratoconjunctivitis (AKC) is an ocular manifestation of systemic hypersensitivity. Although the pathogenesis of AKC is not fully understood, some previous data suggest that a decrease in numbers of suppressor T lymphocyte (Ts) and increase of Th, especially Th2 (the second subgroup of helper T lymphocyte), at the ocular surface may play an important role in the occurrence of the disease. In this study, the percentages of naive-Th (CD4/45RA +) and memory-Th (CD4/29 +) cells, and the Th/Ts and memory-Th cells/naive-Th cells ratios were measured in the blood and tear samples of patients with AKC, atopic patients without ocular involvement and normal volunteers, using flow cytometry. Groups were compared using the Mann-Whitney U test. We found that patients with AKC had significantly higher memory-Th cell concentration, and Th/Ts and memory-Th cells/naive-Th cell ratios both in the tear and blood samples compared to normal subjects. While no significant difference existed between the tear samples of the atopic patients without ocular involvement and normal volunteers with respect to the above values, atopic patients had higher percentages of memory-Th cells and higher Th/Ts and memory-TH cells/naive-Th ratios in their blood than normal subjects. The percentages of memory-Th cells, and the Th/Ts and memory-Th cells/naive-Th cell ratios in the tear samples of AKC patients were also found to be higher than that of the atopic patients without ocular involvement, but no significant difference was present between the blood samples of these groups. The percentages of naive-Th cells did not show any significant difference between groups either in tear or blood samples. Since the mean memory-Th cells/naive-Th1 cells ratio in the tear samples of the patients with AKC was higher than in their blood samples, we propose that the localized accumulation of memory-Th2 cells, in addition to the increase of Th/Ts ratios in the external eye may cause AKC in atopic individuals. (C) 1997 Academic Press Limited.