AIMS: To assess the diagnostic accuracy of lymph node fine needle aspiration (FNA) cytology to distinguish reactive lymphoid hyperplasia from malignant lymphoma, and to evaluate the contribution of ancillary techniques applied to cytological material. METHODS: Two hundred and seventy seven consecutive lymph node FNA specimens reported to be consistent with reactive lymphoid hyperplasia (n = 213) or suggestive/diagnostic of malignant lymphoma (n = 64) were reviewed. Follow up data were obtained by case record review or by histological correlation. The value of immunocytochemistry, in situ hybridisation for immunoglobulin light chain mRNA, and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) towards the final clinicopathological diagnosis was assessed in 92, 61, and 45 cases, respectively. RESULTS: Sixty one of 67 lymphomas and 207 of 209 reactive lymph nodes were accurately diagnosed by FNA cytology. There were six false negative aspirates including three cases of follicular lymphoma, two cases of Hodgkin's disease, and one chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Two FNA specimens considered suspicious of lymphoma proved reactive on histology or clinical follow up. One metastatic small cell carcinoma was wrongly diagnosed as lymphoma. Ancillary studies contributed to the correct diagnosis in most cases although occasional misleading results were obtained, particularly with PCR. CONCLUSIONS: FNA cytology accurately distinguished reactive lymphoid hyperplasia from malignant lymphoma in 97% of cases. However, occasional wrong diagnoses occurred owing to sampling error or misinterpretation. Ancillary studies can be applied to cytological samples and contribute to the diagnosis in most cases.