Patients with chronic hepatitis B (CHB) may develop severe disease exacerbations (flare) with jaundice, and some may progress to fulminant hepatic failure. Whether early administration of lamivudine can prevent liver failure and mortality is uncertain. We investigated the role of lamivudine treatment in severe hepatitis B virus (HBV) exacerbations. Consecutive patients presented with severe flare-up of HBV (new onset of jaundice plus alanine aminotransferase greater than five times upper limit of normal) treated with lamivudine and historical controls who did not receive lamivudine were studied. All patients had no hepatic encephalopathy on admission. Univariate analysis and multivariate logistic regression were performed on various clinical and laboratory factors for the prediction of mortality. Twenty-eight patients treated with lamivudine and 18 controls were identified. Overall, nine patients died and two other received liver transplants for fulminant hepatic failure. Six of 28 (21.4%) lamivudine-treated patients vs five of 18 (27.8%) controls died or received a liver transplant (P = 0.62). On multivariate analysis, platelet < or = 143 x 10E9/L (odds ratio 22.4, 95% CI 1.8-281.6) and bilirubin > 172 micromol/L (odds ratio 18.4, 95% CI 1.5-228.5) were independent predictors of liver-related mortality. The mortality of patients who had thrombocytopenia and high bilirubin, thrombocytopenia, high bilirubin, and no risk factor were 69.2%, 11.1%, 12.5% and 0% respectively. Hence lamivudine confers no survival benefit to conventional treatment in severe exacerbations of CHB. Patients with thrombocytopenia and high bilirubin should be considered for liver transplantation.