Experimental data demonstrate that biliary obstruction increases renal sensitivity to gentamicin. In the present study the incidence of and risk factors for aminoglycoside nephrotoxicity were prospectively studied in patients with extrahepatic obstructive jaundice. Two hundred and thirty-seven hospitalized adult patients were classified into three groups. Group I consisted of 84 patients with extrahepatic obstructive jaundice, who received aminoglycoside (gentamicin or tobramycin). Group II consisted of 81 patients with extrahepatic obstructive jaundice, who received either antibiotics other than aminoglycoside or no antimicrobial therapy. Group III consisted of 72 noncholestatic patients receiving aminoglycosides for different disorders. Nephrotoxicity developed in 27 patients (32%) in group I vs 9 patients (11%) in group II and 4 patients (5.6%) in group III (p < 0.00001). In group I, a comparison of patients with and without nephrotoxicity revealed significantly higher values in the former for mean serum bilirubin concentration, initial steady-state trough aminoglycoside concentration and estimated half-life. Stepwise multivariate analysis with nephrotoxicity status as the dependent variable determined that the most significant variable for predicting nephrotoxicity was serum total bilirubin level. In extrahepatic cholestasis a high serum bilirubin level is a distinct factor predisposing to aminoglycoside nephrotoxicity.