Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) persistently infects B-cells in humans and can be shed into the saliva. The cellular source of infectious virus is uncertain. Hairy leukoplakia, an AIDS-associated lesion of the tongue, supports EBV replication in epithelial cells. However, the general significance of this observation has remained doubtful. Using immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization, we demonstrate evidence of EBV replication in tongue epithelial cells in 4 of 168 samples from 84 autopsy cases. Thus, in patients who do not have AIDS, squamous epithelial cells of the tongue rarely support EBV replication. However, all individuals with evidence of EBV replication were either on immunosuppressive therapy or were terminally ill cancer patients, suggesting that an impairment of the immune system may have allowed EBV replication to occur at this site. Thus, our findings are consistent with the idea that EBV replication in oropharyngeal epithelial cells is an infrequent event.