Glucocorticoids (GCs) are powerful inhibitors of inflammation and immunity. Although glucocorticoid-induced cell death (GICD) is an important part of GCs actions, the cell types and molecular mechanisms involved are not well understood. Untranslated exon 1A3 of the human glucocorticoid receptor (GR) gene is a major determinant of GICD in GICD-sensitive human cancer cell lines, operating to dynamically upregulate GR levels in response to GCs. We measured the GICD sensitivity of freshly isolated peripheral blood mononuclear cells and thymocytes to dexamethasone in vitro, relating this to GR exon 1A3 expression. A clear GICD sensitivity hierarchy was detected: B cells>thymocytes/natural killer (NK) cells>peripheral T cells. Within thymocyte populations, GICD sensitivity decreased with maturation. Interestingly, NK cell subsets were differentially sensitive to GICD, with CD16+CD56int (cytotoxic) NK cells being highly resistant to GICD, whereas CD16-CD56hi (cytokine producing) NK cells were highly sensitive (similar to B cells). B-cell GICD was rescued by co-culture with interleukin-4. Strikingly, although no significant increases in GR protein were observed during 48 h of culture of GICD-sensitive and -resistant cells alike, GR 1A3 expression was increased over pre-culture levels in a manner directly proportional to the GICD sensitivity of each cell type. Accordingly, this is the first evidence that the GR exon 1A3 promoter is differentially regulated during thymic development and maturation of human T cells. Furthermore, human peripheral blood B cells are exquisitely GICD-sensitive in vitro, giving new insight into how GCs may downregulate immunity. Collectively, these data show that GR 1A3 expression is tied with GICD sensitivity in human lymphocytes, underscoring the potential for GR 1A3 expression to be used as a biomarker for sensitivity to GICD.Immunology and Cell Biology advance online publication, 22 July 2014; doi:10.1038/icb.2014.57.