More than 25,000 primary bloodstream infections (BSIs) were identified by 124 National Nosocomial Infections Surveillance System hospitals performing hospital-wide surveillance during the 10-year period 1980-1989. These hospitals reported 6,729 hospital-months of data, during which time approximately 9 million patients were discharged. BSI rates by hospital stratum (based on bed size and teaching affiliation) and pathogen groups were calculated. In 1989, the overall BSI rates for small (less than 200 beds) nonteaching, large nonteaching, small (less than 500 beds) teaching, and large teaching hospitals were 1.3, 2.5, 3.8, and 6.5 BSIs per 1,000 discharges, respectively. Over the period 1980-1989, significant increases (p less than 0.0001) were observed within each hospital stratum, in the overall BSI rate and the BSI rate due to each of the following pathogen groups: coagulase-negative staphylococci, Staphylococcus aureus, enterococci, and Candida species. In contrast, the BSI rate due to gram-negative bacilli remained stable over the decade, in all strata. Except for small nonteaching hospitals, the greatest increase in BSI rates was observed in coagulase-negative staphylococci (the percentage increase ranged between 424% and 754%), followed by Candida species (219-487%). In small nonteaching hospitals, the greatest increase was for S. aureus (283%), followed by enterococci (169%) and coagulase-negative staphylococci (161%). Our analysis documents the emergence over the last decade of coagulase-negative staphylococci as one of the most frequently occurring pathogens in BSI.