The circumstances surrounding the death of all patients who died from asthma in the State of Victoria over a 12-month period from May 1, 1986 were investigated. Data were collected using an interviewer-administered questionnaire as soon as practicable after registration of the death. In 168 cases asthma was considered to be the cause of death and adequate data were obtained in 163; 75 of these were male (74 over 60 years of age). Thirteen per cent had a history of trivial or mild asthma, 22% of moderate and 65% of severe asthma. Thirty-four per cent had not been limited at all or only by active sport, while 39% had had no previous hospital admission for asthma. In only 18% had there been a previous admission to an intensive care unit. Forty-seven per cent were taking inhaled beclomethasone or sodium cromoglycate regularly and 27% were taking corticosteroids by mouth regularly. Death occurred outside hospital in 150 of 163 subjects. In the final attack 58% had a sudden onset and collapsed within minutes, 20% were found dead and 27% had an acute progression of an established attack. Twenty-nine per cent of the deaths were assessed as preventable: preventable factors included inadequate assessment or therapy of prior asthma (35%), poor compliance with therapy (33%) and delay in seeking help (43%). As a significant number of subjects in this survey could not be classified as "high risk", it is important that clinicians ensure that all patients are aware of optimal maintenance management and have a clear individualized plan of what to do in the event of deteriorating asthma.