Mast cells are considered to be the primary effector cells in urticaria but it is possible that lymphocytes contribute to the formation of weals by secreting histamine releasing factors. The aim of this study was to examine the population of mast cells and to quantify the T cell subsets and their activation status in delayed pressure urticaria (DPU), chronic idiopathic urticaria and normal controls. Three biopsies were obtained from each of four patients with chronic idiopathic urticaria but not DPU. Three biopsies were taken from each of 13 patients with DPU, from a combination of unchallenged skin and at 0, 2, 6, 24, 48 and 120 h after weighted steel rods (diameter 1.5 cm) had been applied to the thighs. Three biopsies were similarly obtained from each of four normal controls before an identical pressure challenge and at 6, 24 and 48 h afterwards. The chloracetate esterase stain was used to demonstrate mast cells and an alkaline phosphatase anti-alkaline phosphatase immunohistochemical technique to assess the phenotypic and activation characteristics of the T cell infiltrate. The mast cell count did not differ significantly between unchallenged skin from DPU patients and normal controls. Following a pressure challenge to the DPU patients, the number of stainable mast cells decreased significantly to a level comparable with that in spontaneous weals of chronic idiopathic urticaria. Investigation of T cell subsets showed a preponderance of CD4+ cells over CD8+ cells. There was no evidence of T cell activation in chronic idiopathic urticaria or DPU when compared with normal controls. These data support the view that mast cell degranulation occurs in chronic idiopathic urticaria and suggest that it may also play a role in the pathogenesis of DPU. There was no evidence that lymphocyte activation occurs in either condition.