Women with recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis often demonstrate a down-regulation of cell-mediated immunity (CMI) to Candida albicans detected by a lack of cutaneous delayed-type hypersensitivity (DTH) to Candida antigens. However, the role of systemic CMI as a host defense mechanism against recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis is not well understood, in part because of the lack of a well-defined murine model of vaginal candidiasis. The present study was undertaken to determine: (i) whether soluble Candida culture filtrate antigens (CaCF) could be used to induce and detect Candida-specific CMI in mice and (ii) whether these antigens would be useful in detecting systemic CMI in mice given an experimental Candida vaginal infection. To this end, mice were immunized subcutaneously with CaCF in complete Freund's adjuvant, and within 7 days they developed Candida-specific DTH reactivity detected by footpad swelling (increase in footpad thickness, 0.36 mm) 24 h after footpad challenge with CaCF. Adoptive transfer studies showed that the DTH responsiveness was elicited by CD4+ DTH T cells. In mice given a vaginal inoculum of C. albicans blastoconidia (5 x 10(5)), footpad challenge with CaCF resulted in positive DTH responses (0.24 mm) as early as 1 week, responses similar to immunization in 2 to 3 weeks (0.33 mm), and sustained low levels of DTH reactivity (0.15 mm) through 10 weeks of vaginal infection. Vaginal lavage cultures revealed that peak vaginal Candida burden occurred 1 week post-vaginal inoculation (10(5) CFU) and declined 16-fold by week 10. These results provide evidence that Candida-specific systemic CMI is generated and can be detected longitudinally in mice with Candida vaginitis by a multiantigen preparation of Candida organisms which both initiates and detects Candida-specific CMI.