The intracellular accumulation of a variety of photosensitizers in human (non-nucleated) and chicken (nucleated) erythrocytes, as well as the photodynamically induced hemolysis were studied using 488 nm laser microirradiation (15 (mu) W, 100X) and confocal laser scanning fluorescence microscopy. Cells incubated with the negatively charged hydrophilic compounds TPPS4 and Pd-TPPS4 exhibited no significant fluorescence before irradiation, but developed strong fluorescence in the cellular and nuclear membranes following photoinduced membrane damage. In contrast, microirradiation of Photofrin-incubated erythrocytes showed instantaneous fluorescence which decreased due to photodegradation. For the cationic, hydrophilic dye Methylene Blue, significant fluorescence was detected in the nucleus only. Following ALA incubation, large intercellular differences were observed in fluorescence in the red spectral region. These differences are probably due to the differential ability of individual erythrocytes to biosynthesize protoporphyrin IX. Photofrin was the most efficient photosensitizer to induce hemolysis. Higher radiant exposures were required for lysis of nucleated than of human red blood cells, except in the case of Methylene Blue. Irradiation was more efficient for unwashed cell suspensions than for washed suspensions, indicating the non-negligible role of extracellular photosensitizing molecules.