Descending necrotizing mediastinitis can occur as a complication of oropharyngeal and cervical infections that spread to the mediastinum via the cervical spaces. Delayed diagnosis and inadequate mediastinal drainage through a cervical or minor thoracic approach are the primary causes of a high published mortality rate (near 40%). Between 1985 and 1992, six men (mean age, 49 years) with descending necrotizing mediastinitis were surgically treated at our institution. The primary oropharyngeal infection was peritonsillar abscess (three cases) and odontogenic abscess (three cases). In all cases, occurrence of respiratory insufficiency associated with serious cervical infection suggested the mediastinitis diagnosis. Computed tomographic scans confirmed the mediastinitis, showing mediastinal abscess and mediastinal emphysema. All patients underwent surgical drainage of the deep neck infection combined with mediastinal drainage through a thoracic approach. The outcome was favorable in five patients who had mediastinal drainage through a thoracotomy; the patient who had mediastinal drainage through a minor thoracic approach (anterior mediastinotomy) died of tracheal fistula on postoperative day 18. In our experience, aggressive mediastinal drainage by a thoracotomy approach regardless of the level of mediastinal involvement led to improvement in survival of these patients, with a 17% mortality rate.