Archival lung tissue from 99 cases of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and from 58 matched comparison cases with known causes of death was studied. Sections were examined by in situ hybridization (ISH) using a cocktail of three synthetic oligonucleotides with sequences chosen from the published sequence of the nucleoprotein gene of respiratory syncytial virus (RS virus). The oligonucleotides were end-labelled with dinitrophenyl (DNP) or digoxigenin (DIG) and hybrids were detected immunocytochemically. RS virus nucleic acid was detected in 24 cases of SIDS (24%) and in 11 (19%) of the comparison group. Specificity was confirmed using a DIG-labeled cloned probe covering the whole of the nucleoprotein gene sequence. With one exception, the same results were obtained. Reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) was used to confirm the specificity of these results. When matched for age and month and year of death, 76 SIDS cases and 38 controls could be compared. Twenty-one SIDS cases (27.6%) and seven comparison cases (18.4%) contained detectable RS virus sequences by ISH, with a higher detection rate in winter in both groups. The differences were not significant and reflected the seasonal pattern of RS virus infection in the community rather than a causal relationship of RS virus with SIDS. Detection of RS viral mRNA through the summer months suggests that persistence is possible.