Until the 1990s, venous thromboembolism (VTE) was viewed primarily as a complication of hospitalization for major surgery (or associated with the late stage of terminal illness). However, recent trials in patients hospitalized with a wide variety of acute medical illnesses have demonstrated a risk of VTE in medical patients comparable with that seen after major general surgery. In addition, epidemiologic studies have shown that between one quarter and one half of all clinically recognized symptomatic VTEs occur in individuals who are neither hospitalized nor recovering from a major illness. This expanding understanding of the population at risk challenges physicians to carefully examine risk factors for VTE to identify high-risk patients who could benefit from prophylaxis. Factors sufficient by themselves to prompt physicians to consider VTE prophylaxis include major surgery, multiple trauma, hip fracture, or lower extremity paralysis because of spinal cord injury. Additional risk factors, such as previous VTE, increasing age, cardiac or respiratory failure, prolonged immobility, presence of central venous lines, estrogens, and a wide variety of inherited and acquired hematological conditions contribute to an increased risk for VTE. These predisposing factors are seldom sufficient by themselves to justify the use of prophylaxis. Nevertheless, individual risk factors, or combinations thereof, can have important implications for the type and duration of appropriate prophylaxis and should be carefully reviewed to assess the overall risk of VTE in each patient.