A 1996 cytodensitometric study found increased cellular density in the pulmonary parenchyma of infants who died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The present study clarifies these results in quantifying the density of immunohistochemical subtyped inflammatory cells. Histomorphometry was used to compare the density of macrophages, granulocytes and T and B lymphocytes in the lungs of two groups of infants. From the post-mortem records of infant deaths between 1983 and 1995, 29 (mean age = 5 months) were randomly selected including 16 cases of SIDS and 13 who died of other non-pulmonary causes. Densities of immunoreactive cells were measured under blind conditions in the parenchyma. The mean density of macrophages was significantly higher in cases of SIDS compared with the controls (P = 0.0318), but there were no differences for the lymphocytes and the granulocytes. These morphometrical results must be interpreted within the methodological limits of this study, especially the non-uniform level of lung inflation between selected subjects. However, the differences in level of inflation are not sufficient to explain the observed increase of macrophage density. Indeed, the mean values of alveolar surface area, which represent an indirect measure of lung inflation, are not significantly different between the two groups. Increase of pulmonary macrophage density in SIDS agrees with three non-exclusive hypotheses: (1) an abnormal inflammatory reaction by expression of Th1 helper cell phenotype activation; (2) consequence of passive smoking; and (3) post-agonal mechanisms. Bacterial superantigens produced by toxigenic bacteria in the respiratory tract could play a role as a trigger factor that initiates a fatal cascade with overproduction of cytokines leading to death. The significant increase of pulmonary macrophage density would be the morphological expression of this potential mechanism of death.