Previous epidemiological studies of drowning in the United States have dealt primarily with children. The epidemiology and prevention of drowning in adulthood may be very different. To test this general hypothesis, we analyzed the 293 drownings occurring among Sacramento County residents 20 years of age and above during 1974 to 1985. Drowning rates were highest for men 20-29 years of age (11.5 per 100,000 population) and blacks (7.5 per 100,000 population). Swimmers, boaters, and motor vehicle occupants were most frequently represented. Alcohol use was involved in 48% of cases overall and 77% of those involving motor vehicle occupants. A history of seizure disorder was another contributing factor. Important differences do exist in drowning epidemiology between children and adults. Our results suggest that preventing drowning will be more problematic among adults than among children. The study was also used to test the sensitivity of two commonly used methods of case ascertainment for cases in Sacramento County. A manual review of coroner's records had a sensitivity of 96%. A computerized review of death certificate data from the state's vital statistics data base had a sensitivity of 79%. The sources and implications of these differences are discussed.