AIMS--To investigate whether immunohistochemical staining using p53 and/or bcl-2 distinguishes between florid Hashimoto's thyroiditis and low grade mucosa associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) lymphoma of the thyroid. METHODS--Ten cases of Hashimoto's thyroiditis and eight of primary thyroid lymphoma were stained with monoclonal antibodies directed against p53 and bcl-2. RESULTS--In Hashimoto's thyroiditis most small lymphoid cells in mantle zones, within the thyroid parenchyma and in lymphoepithelial lesions expressed bcl-2 protein. Very occasional centroblasts in reactive germinal centres were positive for p53, but all other lymphoid cells from cases of Hashimoto's disease were negative for p53. In diffuse, low grade lymphomas bcl-2 protein was uniformly expressed by most tumour cells. However, low grade lymphomas with a follicular pattern did not express bcl-2. The diffuse, low grade lymphomas were negative for p53, while occasional larger cells in the follicular subtype were positive. Both high grade lymphomas were bcl-2 negative but strongly p53 positive. CONCLUSIONS--This study indicates that there is an inverse correlation between p53 and bcl-2 immunostaining in thyroid lymphomas (low grade lymphomas: bcl-2 positive, p53 negative; high grade lymphomas: bcl-2 negative, p53 positive). Furthermore, immunohistochemical staining for bcl-2 and p53 proteins does not distinguish florid Hashimoto's thyroiditis from diffuse, low grade thyroid lymphoma.