Little is known concerning the specific clinical characteristics of patients in persistent vegetative states (PVS). Fifty-one patients from four nursing homes, approximately 3% of the total patients, were identified as being in a PVS. The mean age of the patients was 64.8 +/- 3.2 years (range, 19 to 96 years) and the mean duration of the PVS was 3.3 +/- 5.0 years (range, 1 to 16.8 years), with 13 patients' PVS being longer than 5 years. Cerebrovascular accidents and dementia were the most common causes of the PVS, accounting for 32 of the cases (63%). In the younger patients cerebral trauma secondary to motor vehicle accidents was the most common cause. All 51 patients were fed via tube feeding and 35 patients had urinary catheters (75%). All patients were receiving daily medications, with greater than 50% taking daily vitamins. Over 30% were taking digitalis and/or diuretics and over 32% were taking H2 blockers. Transfer of patients to an acute care hospital was not uncommon, with 31 patients (61%) requiring 63 acute care hospitalizations during their stay in the nursing home. As expected, infections were the most common reason for acute care hospitalization, although 15 of the patients were hospitalized for surgical procedures. Another common problem encountered by the patients was pressure sores, with 78% of patients requiring specific therapy for at least one pressure sore. Surprisingly, only 27 (53%) of 51 patients had a specific resuscitation status designation in the medical chart, and neither presence of a chart designation nor specific resuscitation order was related to the patient's age or the cause or duration of PVS. From these data it would appear that clinical characteristics of patients in PVS are variable. Some patients are young, others are old. The cause varies from cerebrovascular accidents to cerebral trauma. Survival may be prolonged; complications are not uncommon, with some patients requiring acute care hospitalization.