Subacute thyroiditis (SAT), or granulomatous thyroiditis, is an inflammatory thyroid condition associated with pain and systemic symptoms. Few community studies are available. We studied the 160 patients with SAT in Olmsted County, Minnesota, seen between January 1, 1960, and December 30, 1997. Subjects were identified through the medical diagnostic index of the Rochester Epidemiology Project. The overall age- and sex-adjusted incidence from 1960 through 1997 was 4.9 cases per 100,000/yr. In the most recent 28-yr period (1970-1997), 94 patients were identified. In this group, pain was the presenting symptom in 96%. SAT recurred in 4% of the patients 6-21 yr after the initial episode. Corticosteroid therapy was given to 36%. Early-onset hypothyroidism occurred both in patients receiving corticosteroid therapy (29%) and in those not receiving corticosteroid therapy (37%). At latest follow-up, significantly more patients who had received corticosteroid therapy had a diagnosis of hypothyroidism than the group without corticosteroid therapy (25% vs. 10%, P < 0.05; overall rate of hypothyroidism, 15%). Early transient hypothyroidism is common in SAT. Permanent hypothyroidism is less common, and only 15% of the patients are receiving T(4) therapy after 28 yr of follow-up. Symptomatic relief is achieved with corticosteroid therapy, but such therapy does not prevent early- and late-onset thyroid dysfunction.