BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVE: In unstable angina, clinical characteristics, resting electrocardiography, and early continuous ST segment monitoring have been individually reported to identify subgroups at increased risk of adverse outcome. It is not known, however, whether continuous ST monitoring provides additional prognostic information in such a setting. DESIGN: Observational study of 212 patients with unstable angina without evidence of acute myocardial infarction admitted to district general hospitals, who had participated in a randomised study comparing heparin and aspirin treatment versus aspirin alone. METHODS: Clinical variables and a 12 lead electrocardiogram (ECG) were recorded at admission, and treatment was standardised to include aspirin, atenolol, diltiazem, and intravenous glyceryl trinitrate, in addition to intravenous heparin (randomised treatment). Continuous ST segment monitoring was performed for 48 h and all inhospital adverse events were recorded. RESULTS: The admission ECG was normal in 61 patients (29%), showed ST depression in 59 (28%) (17 > or = 0.1 mV), and T wave changes in a further 69 (33%). The remaining 23 had Q waves (18), right bundle branch block (four), or ST elevation (one). During 8963 h of continuous ST segment monitoring (mean 42.3 h/patient), 132 episodes of transient myocardial ischaemia (104 silent) were recorded in 32 patients (15%). Forty patients (19%) had an adverse event (cardiac deaths (n = 3), non-fatal myocardial infarction (n = 6) and, emergency revascularisation (n = 31)). Both admission ECG ST depression (P = 0.02), and transient ischaemia (P < 0.001) predicted an increased risk of non-fatal myocardial infarction or death, while no patients with a normal ECG died or had a myocardial infarction. Adverse outcome was predicted by admission ECG ST depression (regardless of severity) (odds ratio (OR) 3.41) (P < 0.001), and maintenance beta blocker treatment (OR 2.95) (P < 0.01). A normal ECG predicted a favourable outcome (OR 0.38) (P = 0.04), while T wave or other ECG changes were not predictive of outcome. Transient ischaemia was the strongest predictor of adverse prognosis (OR 4.61) (P < 0.001), retaining independent predictive value in multivariate analysis (OR 2.94) (P = 0.03), as did maintenance beta blocker treatment (OR 2.85) (P = 0.01) and admission ECG ST depression, which showed a trend towards independent predictive value (OR 2.11) (P = 0.076). CONCLUSIONS: Patients with unstable angina and a normal admission ECG have a good prognosis, while ST segment depression predicts an adverse outcome. Transient myocardial ischaemia detected by continuous ST segment monitoring in such patients receiving optimal medical treatment provides prognostic information additional to that gleaned from the clinical characteristics or the admission ECG.