Abstract Terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end labelling (TUNEL) is frequently used to detect apoptotic cells in tissues, cytospins and suspensions. Here we show that TUNEL staining of freshly isolated granulocytes results in non-specific positivity of a distinct population, which can be observed in the presence or absence of TdT. The morphological features of the false-positive cells examined in fluorescence microscopy suggest that the non-specifically stained cells are eosinophilic granulocytes. Granules of eosinophilic granulocytes were brightly stained by non-specific TUNEL reaction independent of TdT. This staining does not, therefore, indicate apoptosis and most likely reflects ‘stickiness’ of the permeabilized eosinophils. Immunofluorescence with phycoerythrin (PE)-labelled CD16 antibodies performed simultaneously with conventional TUNEL staining confirmed that the false-positive cells in TUNEL staining were CD16-negative eosinophils. In this report we describe a new procedure that allows: (i) the differentiation of neutrophilic and eosinophilic granulocytes in forward scatter versus log side scatter histograms after permeabilisation; (ii) the reliable discrimination between viable neutrophils, apoptotic neutrophils and eosinophilic granulocytes in cytofluorimetry.