Skin lesions of erythema multiforme show time-dependent changes from early papular erythema to the late target lesion which consists of a peripheral elevated erythematous area and a central depressed area. We investigated the pathomechanism of erythema multiforme, by examining the papular erythema and target lesion separately. In the early papular erythema, a small number of polymorphonuclear leukocytes and nuclear debris were seen intermingled with mononuclear cells around the slightly swollen blood vessels, on which immunoglobulin and complement components were deposited. Circulating immune complex levels were occasionally elevated. Sera from the patients generated high levels of reactive oxygen species and nitroblue tetrazolium test revealed positive reaction on the infiltrating cells around the blood vessels. These findings suggest that the papular erythema develops via incomplete type III allergic reaction, followed by damage through reactive oxygen species. In the target lesion, the activity of histamine-N-methyltransferase, which is the major histamine-degrading enzyme, was markedly decreased in the peripheral elevated erythematous area and it was recovering in the central clearing area. ICAM-1 and HLA-DR antigens were expressed on the surfaces of the keratinocytes. An increased number of epidermal Langerhans cells and CD4 cell infiltration were observed in the peripheral elevated erythematous area, while a decreased number of epidermal Langerhans cells and CD8 cell infiltration in the central depressed area were observed. These findings suggest that impaired histamine metabolism and cellular allergic reactions play important roles in the development of the target lesion.