Hypocalcaemia is a common finding in intensive care patients. In addition, raised levels of parathyroid hormone (PTH) have been described. The explanation and clinical importance of these findings are yet to be revealed. To investigate the occurrence of hypocalcaemia and elevated PTH levels and their relationship to morality and the severity of disease, serum levels of PTH, ionized calcium (Ca2+) and the cytokines interleukin 6 (IL-6) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) were measured on arrival in the emergency department in a broad spectrum of 140 acutely ill patients patients suffering from common diseases such as stroke, acute abdominal disorders, obstructive lung diseases, heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, angina pectoris, trauma and infectious diseases. A score (APACHE II) was calculated to assess the severity of disease. Elevated PTH levels (> 55 pg ml-1) were seen in 16% of the patients, being most frequent in patients with myocardial infarction (28%) and congestive heart failure (42%). The levels were significantly correlated with the APACHE II score (r = 0.48, P < 0.0001) and with the length of stay in hospital (r = 0.26, P < 0.002). PTH was also significantly (P < 0.03) elevated in non-survivors compared with survivors and was found to be a stronger predictor of mortality (P < 0.01) than the APACHE II score (P < 0.02) in Cox's proportional hazard analysis. No close relationships were found between the cytokine levels and the indices of calcium metabolism. In conclusion, a rise in serum levels of PTH was common and related to the severity of disease and mortality in a mixed emergency department population.