In many diseases, retrospective analysis for determining the presence of mast cells has been difficult because of their loss of metachromatic staining properties once tissue has undergone formalin fixation. We quantified mast cells in peribronchiolar tissue of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and in normal human lung by using rabbit antiserum to human mast cell tryptase. In lung biopsy specimens from 15 patients with IPF, the mean number of mast cells per high-power field in connective tissue directly adjacent to the lumen of small airways (0.5 to 2 mm in diameter) and other fibrotic foci was 29.9 +/- 10.8 in comparison with 13.7 +/- 3.5 in 16 normal controls (P < 0.001). In addition, mast cells in cases of IPF had an altered appearance--irregularity of the plasma membrane and release of extracellular tryptase. We conclude that the number of mast cells is increased in IPF and that the altered appearance of the mast cells suggests that they are activated and undergoing degranulation.