Systemic infections can trigger heart attacks. We conducted an autopsy study to investigate the pathologic effect of systemic infections on coronary artery inflammation. We studied 14 atherosclerotic patients diagnosed with an acute systemic infection. Our control group (n=13) had atherosclerosis without infection. The groups were similar in luminal stenosis and age. Coronary artery sections were stained with H&E and markers for macrophages (CD68), T cells (CD3), and dendritic cells (S100). On pathologic examination, 5 infected patients had acute myocardial infarction with thrombosis. Macrophage density in plaques and in periadventitial fat was higher in the infected group (NS). The infected patients' adventitia had significantly more macrophages (1,577 +/- 1,872 vs 265 +/- 185 per mm(2); P=0.047). The macrophage density, similar in the control group's adventitia and plaque, was significantly greater in the infected group's adventitia than in the plaque. The adventitia and periadventitial fat of the infected group had more T cells than did samples from the control group (48.4 +/- 45.0 vs 14.1 +/- 6.3 per mm(2); P=0.002). The groups exhibited similar plaque T-cell density. The infected patients' plaques, but not the adventitia and periadventitial fat, had more dendritic cells than did the controls' (3.2 +/- 2.5 vs 0.3 +/- 0.5 per mm(2); P=0.022). To our knowledge, this is the 1st report to establish a connection between acute systemic infections and significant increases in inflammatory cells in the atherosclerotic coronary arteries of human beings. This offers a new therapeutic target for preventing heart attacks in high-risk patients.