Serial lactate concentrations can be used to examine disease severity in the intensive care unit. This study examines the clinical utility of the lactate clearance before intensive care unit admission (during the most proximal period of disease presentation) as an indicator of outcome in severe sepsis and septic shock. We hypothesize that a high lactate clearance in 6 hrs is associated with decreased mortality rate. Prospective observational study. An urban emergency department and intensive care unit over a 1-yr period. A convenience cohort of patients with severe sepsis or septic shock. Therapy was initiated in the emergency department and continued in the intensive care unit, including central venous and arterial catheterization, antibiotics, fluid resuscitation, mechanical ventilation, vasopressors, and inotropes when appropriate. Vital signs, laboratory values, and Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation (APACHE) II score were obtained at hour 0 (emergency department presentation), hour 6, and over the first 72 hrs of hospitalization. Therapy given in the emergency department and intensive care unit was recorded. Lactate clearance was defined as the percent decrease in lactate from emergency department presentation to hour 6. Logistic regression analysis was performed to determine independent variables associated with mortality. One hundred and eleven patients were enrolled with mean age 64.9 +/- 16.7 yrs, emergency department length of stay 6.3 +/- 3.2 hrs, and overall in-hospital mortality rate 42.3%. Baseline APACHE II score was 20.2 +/- 6.8 and lactate 6.9 +/- 4.6 mmol/L. Survivors compared with nonsurvivors had a lactate clearance of 38.1 +/- 34.6 vs. 12.0 +/- 51.6%, respectively (p =.005). Multivariate logistic regression analysis of statistically significant univariate variables showed lactate clearance to have a significant inverse relationship with mortality (p =.04). There was an approximately 11% decrease likelihood of mortality for each 10% increase in lactate clearance. Patients with a lactate clearance> or =10%, relative to patients with a lactate clearance <10%, had a greater decrease in APACHE II score over the 72-hr study period and a lower 60-day mortality rate (p =.007). Lactate clearance early in the hospital course may indicate a resolution of global tissue hypoxia and is associated with decreased mortality rate. Patients with higher lactate clearance after 6 hrs of emergency department intervention have improved outcome compared with those with lower lactate clearance.