BACKGROUND: Various estimates of the incidence and mortality rate of the acute (adult) respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) have been published. The studies that led to those estimates were based on relatively small patient populations and employed variable diagnostic identifiers of ARDS. The purpose of this study was to estimate the incidence of ARDS and its mortality rate from a large database to which refined diagnostic criteria were applied. We conducted a retrospective review of all hospital discharges over a 4-year period, using screening criteria designed to select patients with ARDS. Discharges from all acute care hospitals in the state of Maryland were reviewed using a computer database from the Health Services Cost Review Commission (HSCRC). Patients >/= 12 years of age were included. Screening criteria consisted of ICD-9 codes 518.5 and 518.82 cross-referenced with procedural codes for ventilatory support (96.70, 96.71 and 96.72). Data were normalized to the number of cases per 100,000 people. RESULTS: During the 4-year study period there were 2,501,147 hospitalizations. Applying the ICD-9 ARDS criteria yielded lower and upper limits of 159-205, 439-568, 531-694 and 529-720 cases of ARDS for 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995, respectively. Normalizing for a population of 5 million yields yearly lower and upper limit rates of 3.2-4.2, 8.8-11.4, 10.6-13.8 and 10.5-14.2 cases of ARDS per 100,000 people. Mortality upper and lower limit rates based upon the same duration, admissions and population were 38-49%, 39-52%, 36-47%, and 36-49%, respectively. CONCLUSIONS: The incidence of ARDS in Maryland is in the range of 10-14 cases per 100,000 people. The ARDS mortality rate is 36% to 52%, similar to that calculated in previous studies.