Inactivation of the tumour-suppressor gene p53 has been described as one of the most common molecular changes found in lung tumours. Our purpose was to study the prognostic value of p53 alterations and to determine whether some specific mutation type in the p53 gene could be associated with poor clinical evolution in non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients. To this end, we studied 81 resected primary NSCLCs in order to detect p53 alterations. p53 protein accumulation was analysed using immunohistochemistry methods; p53 gene mutations in exons 5-9 were studied using polymerase chain reaction-single-strand conformation polymorphism and sequencing techniques. p53 protein was immunodetected in 46.9% of lung carcinomas and 44.7% of p53-immunopositive tumours showed p53 mutations. Survival analysis was performed on 62 patients. No survival differences were found for patients with or without p53 immunopositivity. A shorter survival was found in patients with underlying p53 gene mutations, mainly in patients with squamous cell lung tumours; the worst prognosis was found when mutations were located in exon 5 (P = 0.007). In conclusion, the location of p53 mutations might be considered as a prognostic indicator for the evaluation of poor clinical evolution in NSCLC patients.