All 744 patients admitted to a Respiratory-Surgical Intensive Care Unit (RSICU) were included in a prospective study of the effects of a polymyxin (2.5 mg/kg body wt/day in six divided doses) or a placebo aerosol sprayed into the posterior pharynx and tracheal tube (if present), during 11 alternating 2-mo treatment cycles. The incidence of upper airway colonization in the RSICU with Pseudomonas aeruginosa was 1.6% during the polymyxin treatment cycles (total 374 patients) and 9.7% during the placebo cycles (370 patients) (X2 equals 23.2, P less than 0.01). 3 patients in the RSICU acquired Pseudomonas pneumonia, as defined by independent "blinded" assessors, during the polymyxin cycles while 17 acquired a Pseudomonas pneumonia during the placebo cycles (X2 equals 10.2, P less than 0.01). The overall mortality was similar in both placebo and polymyxin-treated groups (12.2 vs. 12.0%). Systemic antibiotic usage was similar in the different cycles; 49% of patients in the placebo and 53% in the polymyxin-treated groups received systemic antibiotics while in the RSICU.