Previous studies on the frequency of mast cells (MCs) in recurrent aphthous ulcers (RAU) have yielded conflicting results. Monoclonal antibodies specific for tryptase (AA1) and anti-IgE (polyclonal antibody) were used to identify density and distribution of MCs in an immunohistochemical study of RAU (n=15), induced oral traumatic ulcers (TUs) (n=9), and control clinically healthy oral mucosa (n=15). Results were quantified by means of a VIDAS image analyzer. In all sections studied, IgE-positive cells showed similar frequency and distribution to tryptase-positive MCs. In RAU lesions, numerous tryptase-positive MCs were found in the sub-epithelial lamina propria, but MC numbers in the epithelium were low and present only in some RAU biopsies. MCs were also more numerous in RAU-inflammatory infiltrates (118±31 cells/mm2) than those seen in TU-inflammatory infiltrates (75±18 cells/mm2,P<0.001). MC activation/degranulation, as judged by diffuse extracellular tryptase staining, was a common feature within RAU-inflammatory infiltrates and at RAU-inflammatory infiltrates-connective tissue interfaces, which were often associated with connective tissue disruption. MC counts in the RAU connective tissue, lateral to the inflammatory infiltrates, were significantly greater than in the connective tissue of TUs and of control biopsies (124±36 vs 73±13 vs 69±21 cells/mm2, respectively; P<0.001). Overall, MCs were significantly increased in aphthae (116±26 cells/mm2) compared with TU lesions (72±11 cells/mm2, P<0.001) and controls(71±16 cells/mm2, P<0.001). In conclusion, MC numbers are increased in a typical topographical pattern, and the local MCs show signs of activation/degranulation suggesting active involvement of this cell type in RAU pathogenesis.