The aim of our study was to address the question of whether muscle fibers express major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II in inflammatory myopathies. For this purpose we performed a systematic study of MHC class II antigen expression on muscle fiber membranes in muscle tissue from polymyositis and dermatomyositis patients in various stages of disease activity. Thirty-two patients with classical clinical signs of myositis were divided into subgroups depending on duration of clinical signs of myositis and presence or absence of inflammatory infiltrates in muscle tissue. Immunohistochemistry as well as double-immunofluorescence stainings were used to identify the presence of MHC class II in muscle tissue. MHC class I was included for comparison. Quantification of positive staining was performed using an image analysis system in addition to evaluation by manual microscopic scoring and laser confocal microscopy. It was demonstrated that a significant proportion of skeletal muscle fibers in inflammatory myopathies express MHC class II as well as MHC class I and that MHC antigen expression is independent of the inflammatory cell infiltration. Furthermore, there were no differences in staining pattern between polymyositis and dermatomyositis patients. Our results indicate that MHC class II and MHC class I molecules may be involved in initiating and maintaining the pathological condition in myositis rather than only being a consequence of a preceding local inflammation.