Hypomagnesemia is the most common electrolyte disturbance seen upon admission to the intensive care unit (ICU). Reliable predictors of its occurrence are not described. The objective of this prospective study was to determine factors predictive of hypomagnesemia upon admission to the ICU. In a single tertiary cancer center, 226 patients with different diagnoses upon entering were studied. Hypomagnesemia was defined by serum levels <1.5 mg/dl. Demographic data, type of cancer, cause of admission, previous history of arrhythmia, cardiovascular disease, renal failure, drug administration (particularly diuretics, antiarrhythmics, chemotherapy and platinum compounds), previous nutrition intake and presence of hypovolemia were recorded for each patient. Blood was collected for determination of serum magnesium, potassium, sodium, calcium, phosphorus, blood urea nitrogen and creatinine levels. Upon admission, 103 (45.6%) patients had hypomagnesemia and 123 (54.4%) had normomagnesemia. A normal dietary habit prior to ICU admission was associated with normal Mg levels (P = 0.007) and higher average levels of serum Mg (P = 0.002). Postoperative patients (N = 182) had lower levels of serum Mg (0.60 +/- 0.14 mmol/l compared with 0.66 +/- 0.17 mmol/l, P = 0.006). A stepwise multiple linear regression disclosed that only normal dietary habits (OR = 0.45; CI = 0.26-0.79) and the fact of being a postoperative patient (OR = 2.42; CI = 1. 17-4.98) were significantly correlated with serum Mg levels (overall model probability = 0.001). These findings should be used to identify patients at risk for such disturbance, even in other critically ill populations.