A high incidence of severe pruritus has been observed after the administration of hydroxyethyl starch (HES) on account of plasma volume substitution and improvement of the microcirculation. The aim of this study was to elucidate the possible pathomechanisms of HES-induced itching. Skin biopsies were taken from 93 patients, half of them presenting with pruritus, who received HES of various preparations and cumulative dosages. The samples were subjected to immunoelectron microscopical investigation using an antibody highly specific for HES. After infusion therapy with HES, formation of intracytoplasmic storage vacuoles in the skin could be demonstrated in all patients. A dose-dependent uptake of HES was first detectable in macrophages and, thereafter, in endothelial and epithelial cells. Consecutive control biopsies taken from single patients revealed a subsequent reduction of the vacuoles, in size and number, within 3 years, thus indicating a regular cutaneous metabolism of HES. Patients suffering from pruritus consistently showed additional deposition of HES in small peripheral nerves. HES-reactive vacuoles could be demonstrated in the Schwann cells of unmyelinated, as well as small myelinated, nerve fibres, and in endoneural and perineural cells. Neural devacuolization paralleled the clinical improvement in the symptoms. In conclusion, HES deposits in cutaneous nerves, as a consequence of a higher cumulative dosage, may account for the itching seen after HES infusion.