Mast cell products, such as histamine, may contribute to the initiation and progression of the atherosclerotic plaque. To determine the relationship that may exist between early atherosclerotic plaques and mast cells we studied the aortas and coronary arteries of 115 young subjects aged 15 to 34 years who had traumatic deaths. Lesions were classified as normal intima, fatty streaks, fibro-fatty plaques, and fibrous plaques. Aortic and coronary artery segments with raised lesions had significantly greater numbers of mast cells in the adventitia (and occasionally intima and outer media) compared with those with a normal intima. In the aortic segments greater numbers of mast cells were located in the dorsal portion (lesion "prone") compared with the ventral half (lesion "resistant") (P < .05). These data support the concept that increased numbers of mast cells are associated with atherosclerosis and suggest a role for mast cell products in the evolution of the atherosclerotic plaque.