Little epidemiologic data are available on the occurrence of interstitial lung diseases (ILDs) in the general population. To describe the prevalence and incidence of ILDs a population-based registry of patients with ILDs was established in Bernalillo County, New Mexico in October 1988. All patients 18 yr of age and older who had a clinical diagnosis of an ILD were identified during the period 10/1/88 through 9/30/90 from physician referrals, hospital discharge diagnoses, histopathology reports, and death certificates. In addition, the prevalence of preclinical or undiagnosed cases was identified by screening lung specimens from 510 autopsy cases. A total of 2,936 referrals were screened; 8.8% were prevalent cases and 6.9% were incident cases. Overall, the prevalence of ILDs was 20% higher in males (80.9 per 100,000) than in females (67.2 per 100,000). Similarly the overall incidence of ILDs was slightly more common in males (31.5 per 100,000/year) than females (26.1 per 100,000/year). The estimated prevalence of preclinical or undiagnosed ILDs among all deaths was 1.8%. The most common incident diagnosed among both sexes were pulmonary fibrosis and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, together accounting for 46.2% of all ILD diagnoses in males and 44.2% in females. We conclude that the occurrence of ILDs in the general population may be more common than previous estimates based on selected populations, and these disorders may frequently be unrecognized.