Cushing's disease refers specifically to an ACTH-producing pituitary adenoma that stimulates excess cortisol production. Transsphenoidal surgery is the treatment of choice in children and adolescents, but disparate cure rates have been reported, ranging from 50-98%. The discrepancies in cure rate are due primarily to the technical success of the surgery and the length and method of follow-up. We studied 42 consecutive children and adolescents (age, < or = 18 yr) who underwent transsphenoidal exploration for the primary treatment of Cushing's disease at University of California-San Francisco from 1974-1993. Only 7 patients had persistent disease, defined as evidence of Cushing's disease within 6 months of surgery, yielding an initial remission rate of 83%. We comprehensively evaluated 26 of the 35 patients who experienced an initial remission, including testing of the ACTH-adrenocortical axis. The mean duration of follow-up is 7.2 yr (range, 1.5-13.6 yr). Seven experienced a relapse of Cushing's disease, yielding a net remission rate of 73%. Relapses occurred an average of 4.2 yr postoperatively (range, 0.75-6.2 yr). Five patients experienced relapse within 5 yr of surgery, whereas 2 relapsed more than 5 yr postoperatively. Repeat transsphenoidal surgery was performed in 8 patients with persistent or recurrent disease, and 6 of these remain in remission. Low serum or urinary cortisol measurements within the first post-operative week predicted remission of Cushing's disease, but were not necessarily predictive of long-term cure. Hypercortisolism had significant effects on bone metabolism, as reflected by both diminished bone density in the majority of patients examined and decreased growth rate. Both parameters improved after surgical care, although they did not fully normalize. We conclude that transsphenoidal surgery is a safe and effective treatment for pediatric Cushing's disease, but long-term surveillance is necessary to detect possible recurrences.