Dobutamine stress echocardiography is considered a relatively well-tolerated diagnostic modality, effective in the management of patients with known or suspected coronary artery disease. Adverse effects during testing are relatively frequent, precluding the achievement of a diagnostic end-point in about 5 to 10% of tests. These adverse effects, mostly tachyarrhythmias and arterial hypotension, are usually minor and self limiting. However, severe life-threatening complications, as well as death, also occur. By analysing Medline-quoted literature up to March 1999, we found 35 original studies from a single institution with more than 100 patients, as well as 2 multicentre studies, concerning the feasibility and safety of dobutamine stress echocardiography. In a cumulative total of 26438 tests performed, 79 life-threatening complications (such as acute myocardial infarction, asystole, ventricular fibrillation, sustained ventricular tachycardia or severe symptomatic hypotension) have been reported, giving an incidence of 1 severe adverse reaction per every 335 examinations. In addition, 29 isolated case reports have been published describing life-threatening complications during dobutamine echocardiography. In case reports, 2 deaths have been described, both due to acute cardiac rupture in patients with recent inferior myocardial infarction. Severe adverse reactions during dobutamine echocardiography can be ischaemia independent, and are independent of operator experience and are unpredictable; some complications can be late occurring and long lasting. As a consequence, the procedure must be clearly indicated, written informed consent has to be obtained from the patient, an attending physician must be present during testing, and long term observation of outpatients is useful in order to manage late complications. In conclusion, while the safety of dobutamine stress echocardiography was reported to be outstanding in early reports, further experience presents a substantially more worrying picture. This must be taken into account by both physicians and patients when assessing the risk-benefit profile of the procedure.