The sentinel lymph node (SN) is the first node on the direct lymphatic drainage pathway from a tumor. Melanoma-associated SNs are the most likely site of early metastases and their immune functions are strikingly down-modulated. We evaluated histologic and cytologic characteristics of 21 SNs and 21 nonsentinel nodes (NSNs) from melanoma patients who had clinically localized (AJCC Stage I--II) primary cutaneous melanoma. SNs showed highly significant reductions in total paracortical area and in the area of the paracortical subsector occupied by dendritic cells. The frequency of paracortical interdigitating dendritic cells (IDCs) was dramatically reduced in SNs, and most IDCs (approximately 99%) lacked the complex dendrites associated with active antigen presentation. The release of immunosuppressive factors from the primary melanoma may induce a localized and specific paralysis in the SN, which prevents the recognition of otherwise immunogenic melanoma antigens by IDCs. This immune paralysis may facilitate the implantation and growth of melanoma cells in the SN. Cytokine therapy may be able to reverse this immune paralysis. These findings have an important practical application in the histopathologic confirmation that a node is truly sentinel. They also offer an hypothesis to explain the failure of the immune surveillance mechanisms to identify and respond to a small primary melanoma that expresses immunogenic tumor antigens.