We investigated the incidence, factors affecting referral and outcome of acute renal failure (ARF), in an unselected (predominantly Caucasian) population in the Grampian region of Scotland served by a single renal unit. Case-notes were examined for all patients with a serum creatinine > or = 300 mumol/l. ARF (311 patients) was defined as a temporary rise in serum creatinine > or = 300 mumol/l, or, if the patient died during the acute illness, clinical features indicating acute deterioration of previously normal renal function. Advanced ARF at presentation (51 of the 311 with ARF) was defined as a first recorded serum creatinine > or = 500 mumol/l. Patients were classified into low-, medium-, and high-risk groups according to presence of comorbidity and age. The annual incidence of ARF was 620/million population (pmp), that of advanced ARF 102 pmp. The age-related incidence of ARF ranged from 30 pmp in the age group (0-19 years) to 4266 pmp in the age group > 80 years. Overall, 22% were referred to a nephrologist (34% after excluding those with advanced cancer and age > 80 years). Referral of patients decreased from 100% in the age group 0-19 to 5% in those > 80 years. Referrals in the low-, medium- and high-risk groups were 75%, 30% and 14%, respectively. Patient survival at 2 years was 80%, 42% and 19% for low-, medium-, and high-risk groups, respectively (86%, 44% and 32% for referred patients). Referral and outcome in patients with ARF were significantly influenced by age and presence of comorbidity at presentation.