We analysed the results of coagulation studies in an unselected series of young adults with acute cerebral ischaemia. Our aims were (a) to determine the prevalence of coagulation disorders among these patients, (b) to investigate the relation between the presence of coagulation abnormalities and large vessel disease or potential sources of cardiac embolism and (c) to evaluate the occurrence of thrombotic events in patients with or without coagulation disorders. One hundred and twenty consecutively admitted patients (53 men, 67 women, median age 38 years, range 15-45) who presented with acute cerebral infarction (n = 89) or a transient ischaemic attack (n = 31) were evaluated. Diagnostic studies consisted of electrocardiography, echocardiography, duplex scanning, and/or angiography. Coagulation studies included activity tests of protein S, protein C, antithrombin, plasminogen, measurement of immunoglobulin G (IgG) anticardiolipin antibodies (ACLA), and a dilute prothrombin assay. Initially, 30 patients had increased ACLA titres and 28 had an abnormal dilute prothrombin assay, suggesting lupus anticoagulant. Decreased protein S, protein C and antithrombin activity were detected in 20, 3 and 3 patients, respectively, excluding patients in whom the abnormalities could be explained by the use of medication, by pregnancy or puerperium. We detected a decreased activity of plasminogen in 5 patients. The disorders could be confirmed by a second assessment in only 2 patients with a protein S deficiency, in none of the patients with a protein C or antithrombin deficiency and in 1 patient with plasminogen deficiency. However, the abnormalities persisted in 19 of 21 patients with increased anticardiolipin IgG titres and in 9 of 20 patients with lupus anticoagulant. A confirmed coagulation disorder was not associated with stroke type or vascular risk factors, but it was more common among patients with large vessel disease (odds ratio: 3.8, 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.1-12.8). Sixteen patients had a recurrent thromboembolic event, but the risk of recurrence was not increased among patients with a confirmed coagulation disorder. Our results suggest that idiopathic coagulation disorders are found in about a quarter of young stroke patients. They are difficult to predict and probably interact with other risk factors.