Tube thoracostomy (TT) is required in the treatment of many blunt and penetrating injuries of the chest. In addition to complications from the injuries, TT may contribute to morbidity by introducing microorganisms into the pleural space or by incomplete lung expansion and evacuation of pleural blood. We have attempted to assess the impact of TT following penetrating and blunt thoracic trauma by examining a consecutive series of 216 patients seen at two urban trauma centers with such injuries who required TT over a 30-month period. Ninety-four patients suffered blunt chest trauma; 122 patients were victims of penetrating wounds. Patients with blunt injuries had longer ventilator requirements (12.6 +/- 14 days vs. 3.7 +/- 7.1 days, p = 0.003), longer intensive care stays (12.2 +/- 12.5 days vs. 4.1 +/- 7.5 days, p = 0.001), and longer periods of TT, (6.5 +/- 4.9 days vs. 5.2 +/- 4.5 days, p = 0.018). Empyema occurred in six patients (3%). Residual hemothorax was found in 39 patients (18%), seven of whom required decortication. Recurrent pneumothorax developed in 51 patients (24%) and ten required repeat TT. Complications occurred in 78 patients (36%). Patients with blunt trauma experienced more complications (44%) than those with penetrating wounds (30%) (p = 0.04). However, only seven of 13 patients developing empyema or requiring decortication had blunt trauma. Despite longer requirements for mechanical ventilation, intensive care, and intubation, victims of blunt trauma seemed to have effective drainage of their pleural space by TT without increased risk of infectious complications.