Appropriate follow-up of patients with needle core breast biopsies (NCBB) showing atypical hyperplasia remains unclear because previous studies show that subsequent open biopsies in variable proportions of these patients reveal ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) or even invasive carcinoma, indicating significant sampling artifact. NCBB with diagnoses of atypia were morphologically classified into groups as follows: I, ALH (n = 24); II, ADH with minimal cytologic atypism (n = 90); III, atypia, other (9 columnar, 2 apocrine, 11 atypical papillary); IV, severe ADH/borderline DCIS (n = 31). Mammographic and histologic features, including the number of foci of atypia in the NCBB and the calcification span, were then correlated with presence of DCIS or invasive tumor in subsequent open excisions. Open excisional biopsies showed more severe lesions in 12% of Group I-III cases (8% in Group I, 9% in Group II, and 27% in Group III), of which 15 were DCIS and one was an invasive tubular carcinoma (0.3 cm). Of the DCIS, 60% (n = 9) were < or =5 mm, and 13 of 15 (87%) were low grade. The NCBB cavity was immediately adjacent to the more severe lesions in 88% (n = 14) of cases, in keeping with sampling error. The subset showing severe ADH with borderline nuclear features in contrast was associated with a high likelihood (63%) of DCIS in follow-up excisions. NCBB with atypical papillary features also showed a high frequency of DCIS (4/11, 36%) in subsequent open excisions. Other factors associated with more severe lesions on open biopsy included the number of atypical foci in the NCBB (>4, P <.05) and the mammographic calcification span (>2.0 cm, P <.0001). Atypical lesions diagnosed in NCBB samples are radiographically and morphologically heterogeneous, accounting for the variable frequency of DCIS or invasive neoplasm identified in subsequent open excisions, which are usually focal, low grade, and a consequence of sampling artifact (i.e., adjacent to the NCBB cavity). DCIS is more likely if microcalcifications are mammographically extensive or if atypia is multifocal or is associated with borderline cytologic features.