To investigate the possibilities of differentiating between inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and infectious colitis on histologic grounds, a prospective histologic study of 105 patients with a first attack of colitis was undertaken. Rectal biopsies were performed on four occasions during 1 year. The strongest predictor of IBD was basal plasmacytosis, followed by more than two vertical crypt branches per medium-power field, crypt distortion, villous mucosa, and mucosal atrophy. These signs were rarely found among patients with infectious colitis. Their frequency increased with the interval between initial symptoms and the first biopsy. To study the development of histologic features in the absence of treatment, the IBD patients were divided into groups depending on this interval. Focal or diffuse basal plasmacytosis increased from 38% in the group with an interval of 1-15 days to 89% in those who presented in 121-300 days, and crypt distortion from 0% to 78%, whereas absence of signs indicating IBD decreased from 62% to 11%. The presence of focal basal plasmacytosis seems to be the earliest sign of IBD. The frequency of histologic signs indicating IBD was maximal (88%) at the 1-week biopsy. After recovery, the basal plasmacytosis and villous mucosa decreased, whereas crypt distortion and mucosal atrophy remained unchanged. Early treatment did not prevent the appearance of any feature.