Little is known of the epidemiology of pneumothorax. Routinely available data on pneumothorax in England are described. Patients consulting in primary care with a diagnosis of pneumothorax in each year from 1991 to 1995 inclusive were identified from the General Practice Research Database (GPRD). Emergency hospital admissions for pneumothorax were identified for the years 1991-4 from the Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) data. Mortality data for England & Wales were obtained for 1950-97. Analyses of pneumothorax rates by age and sex were performed for all data sources. Seasonal and geographical analyses were carried out for the HES data. The overall person consulting rate for pneumothorax (primary and secondary combined) in the GPRD was 24. 0/100 000 each year for men and 9.8/100 000 each year for women. Hospital admissions for pneumothorax as a primary diagnosis occurred at an overall incidence of 16.7/100 000 per year and 5.8/100 000 per year for men and women, respectively. Mortality rates were 1. 26/million per year for men and 0.62/million per year for women. The age distribution in both men and women showed a biphasic distribution for both GP consultations and hospital admissions. Deaths showed a single peak with highest rates in the elderly. There was an urban-rural trend observed for hospital admissions in the older age group (55+ years) with admission rates in the conurbations significantly higher than in the rural areas. Analysis for trends in mortality data for 1950-97 showed a striking increase in the death rate for pneumothorax in those aged 55+ years between 1960 and 1990, with a steep decline in the 1990s. Mortality in the younger age group (15-34 years) remained low and constant. There is evidence of two epidemiologically distinct forms of spontaneous pneumothorax in England. The explanation for the rise and fall in mortality for secondary pneumothorax is obscure.