A prospective study was performed over 15 months to determine the cause of iron deficiency in adult males and postmenopausal females attending a general hospital. The laboratory computer identified all subjects with a haemoglobin less than 10.6 g/dl and a mean corpuscular volume less than 86 fl. Patients becoming anaemic after trauma or recent surgery were excluded. The iron status of each patient was assessed by serum iron studies, serum ferritin or sternal marrow aspiration. Reduced red cell indices and blood film morphology were not diagnostic of iron deficiency. Of 215 patients assessed, about half (103) were found to be iron replete. This group had a variety of disorders--malignancy, chronic inflammation, chronic renal and non-malignant haematological diseases. The other group of 104 patients satisfied criteria for iron deficiency, and 100 of these were investigated further. The cause of iron deficiency was found in all but three subjects. Inadequate dietary intake was a contributing factor in over half of the patients and 40 regularly took salicylates. Investigation defined a source of chronic gastrointestinal blood loss in most instances.