Activation of immunoregulatory T lymphocyte subsets has been observed in dengue viral infection, being more evident in dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) than in classical dengue fever (DF). There are, however, as yet no well-defined host markers to determine which patients with dengue viral infection will develop severe complications during the acute febrile stage of the disease. A study was performed to compare the cellular immune status in DHF, DF and non-dengue viral infections (NDF) in order to determine the value of these parameters in distinguishing DHF from classic DF and other viral infections during the acute febrile stage of the disease. This study involved 109 febrile patients admitted because of suspected DHF. Fifty patients were serologically confirmed cases of dengue infection, of which 25 had grade 1 or 2 DHF. There was a reduction in total T (CD3), CD4 and CD8 cells in DHF and demonstrated that a low level of CD3, CD4, CD8 and CD5 cells discriminated DHF from DF patients during the febrile stage of the illness. In contrast, B (CD19) cells and natural killer (NK) cells did not appear to be discriminatory in this study. Receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve analysis showed that a combination of CD3 cell of < or = 45% and CD5 cell of < or = 55% was the best marker to identify DHF patients (sensitivity = 84% and specificity = 52% for CD3 cell of < or = 45%; sensitivity = 92% and specificity = 71% for CD5 cell of < or = 55%). CD4 cell of < or = 25% and CD8 cell < or = 30% were equally good in discriminating DHF from DF patients. On the other hand, the ROC curves indicated no clear difference between the immunoregulatory cell counts in DF from NDF Lymphopenia, atypical lymphocytosis and thrombocytopenia were significantly more evident in dengue compared to non-dengue infection but did not appear to be discriminatory among DHF and DF patients. The reduction in CD3, CD4, CD8, CD5 cells correlated with the degree of thrombocytopenia in DHF (p < 0.05) which suggests that these cells probably participate in a common pathogenetic mechanism.