Activation of mast cells, the key cells of allergic inflammation, causes typical morphological changes associated with an increase in volume, that is a function of area and perimeter. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effect of mast cell activation to degranulate, carried out by the secretagogue Compound 48/80, and of inhibition of this activation carried out by Nedocromil sodium, a mast cell stabilizing drug, on mast cell area, perimeter and shape factor by a computerized image analyzer. Mast cells were isolated and purified by peritoneal lavage of rats (purity >98%) and co-cultured with mouse 3T3 fibroblasts to which they adhere. Cultures were incubated for 10 min at 37 degrees C with culture medium alone (Enriched Medium) or Enriched Medium containing either Nedocromil (10(-4) M) or Compound 48/80 (0.3 microg/ml) or Compound 48/80 and Nedocromil (0.3 microg/ml and 10(-4) M respectively). Supernatants were then assessed for histamine release, as a marker of mast cell activation and the cell monolayers were fixed and stained with an alcoholic-acidic toluidine blue solution and examined with a computerized image analyzer connected with a light microscope. Mast cells incubated in Enriched Medium or Nedocromil possessed similar morphometric parameters. Mast cells activated with Compound 48/80 (70% histamine release) had a significant increase in area and perimeter and a decrease in shape factor in comparison to mast cells in Enriched Medium alone. Simultaneous incubation of mast cells with Compound 48/80 and Nedocromil significantly inhibited their histamine release (36% histamine release) and the increase in area and perimeter, but did not affect significantly their shape factor, in comparison with mast cells incubated with Compound 48/80 alone. These data clearly show that there is a relationship between mast cell activation, consequent histamine release and changes in cell area, perimeter and shape factor and that Nedocromil not only inhibits mast cell histamine release but also the activation induced morphometric changes in mast cells.