Adult rat sensory neurones were maintained in short-term tissue culture and their response to histamine was studied by monitoring changes in intracellular [Ca(2+)] with Fura-2. The proportion of histamine-sensitive neurones increased as the concentration increased from 10 microM to 10 mM. The fraction of responding cells did not change significantly over the first week in culture. About 60% of histamine-sensitive cells were insensitive to capsaicin and these cells tended to be of small diameter. The integrated calcium response to histamine was greatest at 100 microM when the response consisted of two phases: an initial short-lasting transient followed by a sustained plateau that was dependent on extracellular calcium. This response was blocked by the histamine H(1) receptor antagonist mepyramine but not by cimetidine or thioperamide which block H(2) and H(3) receptors, respectively. Moreover, application of histamine increased the intracellular concentration of inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate -- an effect blocked by mepyramine. These data show that the response is mediated by H(1) receptors. The phospholipase C inhibitor U73122 blocked the response to 100 microM histamine and significantly reduced the fraction of cells responding to 1 mM and 10 mM histamine as did removal of extracellular calcium. A combination of U73122 and calcium-free medium abolished all responses to histamine. These data suggest that in addition to activating phospholipase C, high concentrations of histamine gate an influx of calcium that is independent of store depletion. The implications of these results for the transduction of pruritic stimuli is discussed.