The present study was designed to examine the effects of a sesquiterpene lactone isolated from Artemisia douglasiana Besser (dehydroleucodine), a xanthanolide sesquiterpene isolated from Xanthium cavanillesii Schouw (xanthatin) and a semisynthetic butenolide (3-benzyloxymethyl-5H-furan-2-one) on mast cell degranulation induced by compound 48/80. Peritoneal mast cells from male adult Sprague–Dawley rats were purified in Percoll, preincubated in the presence of test lactones (dehydroleucodine, xanthatin or 3-benzyloxymethyl-5H-furan-2-one) and then challenged with the mast cell activator compound 48/80 (10 μg/ml). Concentration-response and kinetic studies of mast cell serotonin release evoked by compound 48/80, evaluation of mast cell viability and morphology by light and electron microscopy, and comparative studies using ketotifen and sodium chromoglycate were carried out. Serotonin release studies, carried out together with morphological studies, showed the effectiveness of the above lactones to stabilize mast cells. The comparative study with ketotifen and sodium chromoglycate, well known mast cell stabilizers, showed the following order of potency dehydroleucodine = xanthatin > 3-benzyloxymethyl-5H-furan-2-one ≥ ketotifen/sodium chromoglycate to inhibit mast cell serotonin release induced by compound 48/80. The present study provides the first strong evidence in favour of the hypothesis that dehydroleucodine, xanthatin and 3-benzyloxymethyl-5H-furan-2-one inhibit compound 48/80-induced serotonin release from peritoneal mast cells, acting thus as mast cell stabilizers. Our findings may provide an insight into the design of novel pharmacological agents which may be used to regulate the mast cell response.