In this study we used the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), slot blot and Southern blot hybridization, direct sequencing and in situ hybridization (ISH) to show the possible presence of EBV-DNA in pre-ulcerative oral aphthous lesions of patients with recurrent aphthous ulcers (RAU) or Behçet's disease (BD). For this purpose, formalin-fixed biopsy specimens were obtained from 13 pre-ulcerative oral aphthous lesions of nine RAU and four BD patients. Five specimens of normal oral mucosa (NOM) from five normal control subjects and 10 specimens of oral erosive or ulcerative lesions from 10 patients with erosive lichen planus (ELP) were also included. EBV-DNA was detected by PCR in 5 of the 13 (38.5%) pre-ulcerative oral aphthous lesions, two from RAU patients and three from BD patients. However, no EBV-DNA was demonstrated in five NOM specimens from normal control subjects and in 10 specimens of oral lesions from ELP patients. EBV-DNA was also demonstrated in patients' peripheral blood lymphocytes and/or plasma, suggesting that the lymphocytes may be the reservoir of latent EBV infection and there is EBV shedding in the plasma. EBV-DNA was detected by ISH in only one PCR-positive case; the reaction product was found to deposit on the nuclei of some of the epithelial cells and lymphocytes. By immunohistochemistry, expression of Epstein-Barr nuclear antigen and EBV/C3d receptors was also noted in some of the epithelial cells and lymphocytes in this ISH-positive case. Therefore, we suggest that the epithelial cells of pre-ulcerative oral aphthous lesions may be infected by EBV through EBV-infected lymphocytes; also, the cytotoxic T lymphocyte-induced lysis of the EBV-infected epithelial cells, but not the virus-induced cytolysis, may be the main mechanism causing oral ulcer formation. Our data provide preliminary evidence for an association of EBV with pre-ulcerative oral aphthous lesions in RAU and BD patients.