Patients with sepsis have impaired host defenses that contribute to the lethality of the disorder. Recent work implicates lymphocyte apoptosis as a potential factor in the immunosuppression of sepsis. If lymphocyte apoptosis is an important mechanism, specific subsets of lymphocytes may be more vulnerable. A prospective study of lymphocyte cell typing and apoptosis was conducted in spleens from 27 patients with sepsis and 25 patients with trauma. Spleens from 16 critically ill nonseptic (3 prospective and 13 retrospective) patients were also evaluated. Immunohistochemical staining showed a caspase-9-mediated profound progressive loss of B and CD4 T helper cells in sepsis. Interestingly, sepsis did not decrease CD8 T or NK cells. Although there was no overall effect on lymphocytes from critically ill nonseptic patients (considered as a group), certain individual patients did exhibit significant loss of B and CD4 T cells. The loss of B and CD4 T cells in sepsis is especially significant because it occurs during life-threatening infection, a state in which massive lymphocyte clonal expansion should exist. Mitochondria-dependent lymphocyte apoptosis may contribute to the immunosuppression in sepsis by decreasing the number of immune effector cells. Similar loss of lymphocytes may be occurring in critically ill patients with other disorders.