We conducted a retrospective study to assess the reasons for admission to the intensive care unit, and subsequent outcome, in patients infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Four hospitals in the south of England participated, all with specialist HIV units. Data were collected on 127 patients admitted to ICU on 133 separate occasions between June 1993 and October 1997. The mean age on admission was 38 years (range 23-60 years). Ninety-four patients (70.7%) were documented HIV-positive before admission and 36 (27%) were diagnosed HIV-positive for the first time during admission; 36.1% were admitted with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Overall ICU mortality was 33%, in-hospital mortality was 56% and the eventual mortality at the end of follow-up (March 1998) was 72%. Survival was highest in those admitted with respiratory HIV-related disease or HIV-unrelated illness. Associations with poor outcome included a prior AIDS-defining illness, a CD4 cell count of less than 100 cells.ml-1 and admission secondary to sepsis.