Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is increasingly common in hospital and community populations, making the recognition of true nosocomial outbreaks more difficult. We have used pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) with Sma I digestion to analyse retrospectively two perceived outbreaks of epidemic methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus 15 (EMRSA 15) colonization. The first cluster of cases in patients and staff on a general ward (ward D) revealed three different antibiograms based on differences in ciprofloxacin and rifampicin sensitivities. All isolates typed using PFGE, which was more discriminatory than phage-typing. One PFGE banding profile labelled type 5 was predominant, but 12 isolates proved to be subtypes of type 5 and two were PFGE type 11. Four staff members carried a strain not found in patients, three carried strains found in patients and transient carriage was highlighted as a problem when screening staff. PFGE enhanced the epidemiological data and proved that the cases on this ward did not comprise one large outbreak but numerous sporadic cases and smaller clusters. In contrast, isolates from a second cluster of cases which occurred on ward F were indistinguishable using antibiograms, phage-typing and PFGE, confirming this was more likely to be a true outbreak of colonization. We conclude that PFGE usefully augments epidemiological information and allows more logical infection control decisions to be made, with better utilization of scarce resources.