In this study, skin-infiltrating cells were characterized in both the active and remission phases of post-burn hypertrophic scar biopsies. Immunohistochemistry examination of active phase samples showed an abundant presence of Langerhans cells, T cells, macrophages, a low presence of natural killer cells and the lack of B lymphocytes. In active hypertrophic scars T lymphocytes infiltrate deep into the superficial dermis and are also observed in the epidermis: CD3+ cells were present at about 222 +/- 107 per 0.25 mm2. In particular the analysis of lymphocyte subpopulations showed that CD4+ T cells predominate in the dermis as well as in the epidermis of active hypertrophic scars whereas CD8+ cells were less well represented (CD4/CD8 ratio is 2.06). This distribution was also shown in remission phase samples and in normotrophic scar specimens, although the lymphocyte number was significantly lower. Approximately 70 per cent of T lymphocytes present in the tissue involved in active phase hypertrophic scar samples were activated (positive with anti-HLA-DR and IL-2 receptor antibodies) which is significantly higher than remission phase hypertrophic and normotrophic scars, in which positivity was 40 and 38 per cent, respectively. Upon activation, the lesional lymphocytes release several cytokines, locally and transiently, that interact with specific receptors in response to different stimulation. Central to the immune hypothesis of hypertrophic scars is that some of the T-cell lymphokines act on keratinocytes, fibroblasts and other cell types to induce changes characteristic of these scars. The presence and close proximity of activated T lymphocytes and antigen-presenting cells of various phenotypes in both the epidermis and dermis of hypertrophic tissues provides strong circumstantial evidence of a local immune response. However, the manner in which T cells achieve and maintain their activated state in hypertrophic tissues is not yet known, and both antigen-dependent and independent mechanisms may contribute.