BACKGROUND: Survival from cystic fibrosis is increasing rapidly. Estimates of the extent of this improvement should allow health care facilities to be planned to deal with the expanding population of patients with cystic fibrosis. Estimates of life expectancy are also essential if accurate information on current prognosis is to be given to parents of an affected child, or to prospective parents deciding whether to proceed with a pregnancy where the fetus may be affected. METHODS: Survival trends in the national data on cystic fibrosis have been analysed to produce estimates of the likely size of the cystic fibrosis population over the next decade and to predict the life expectancy of children born with cystic fibrosis in the years up to 1990. RESULTS: In England and Wales the estimated number of patients with cystic fibrosis is at present about 5200, of whom 3300 (63%) are aged under 16 years. By the year 2000 the total population will increase to 6000, with 3400 (57%) aged under 16. Thus the number of children with cystic fibrosis will remain fairly constant over the next 10 years, whereas adult numbers will increase by about 36% (from 1901 to 2577). The median life expectancy of children with cystic fibrosis born in 1990 is estimated to be 40 years, double that of 20 years ago. CONCLUSION: This study suggests that health service provision for children will not need to change substantially over the next 10 years whereas services for adults will need to increase by about a third. Parents can be counselled that the median life expectancy of a newborn child with cystic fibrosis is currently likely to be of the order of 40 years.