The purpose of this study was to review the cases of iatrogenic pneumothorax that occurred between October 1983 and December 1988 at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, Long Beach, Calif, to determine the treatment and complications. During this time period, 106 patients were identified with iatrogenic pneumothorax, and the charts of 98 were available for review. There were 90 cases of spontaneous pneumothorax at this institution during the same time period. The most common cause of iatrogenic pneumothorax was transthoracic needle aspiration (35), followed by thoracentesis (30), subclavian venipuncture (23), and positive pressure ventilation (7). In 11 cases, the cause was due to miscellaneous triggers. The majority of the patients (65 of 98) were treated with chest tubes. The chest tubes were in place 4.7 +/- 3.9 days. Nine of the patients required a second chest tube. Aspiration of the pneumothorax only was attempted in five patients, and all patients subsequently received a chest tube. Two patients died from iatrogenic pneumothorax. One patient receiving positive pressure ventilation developed an unrecognized tension pneumothorax. The other patient developed a pneumothorax after thoracentesis and was treated with a chest tube, which led to a staphylococcal empyema and death. From this study, we conclude that the incidence of iatrogenic pneumothorax exceeds that of spontaneous pneumothorax and that there is substantial morbidity and some mortality from iatrogenic pneumothorax.