Gastroenteritis (GE) is among the most common illnesses of humans but the burden of disease, its epidemiology, and the distribution of pathogens in adults have not been fully examined. This information is needed to plan prevention strategies particularly for high-risk groups. This study is a retrospective analysis of data from the National Hospital Discharge Survey for the years 1979 through 1995 which describes the disease burden and epidemiology of hospitalizations associated with GE among adults in the United States. Diarrhoea was listed as a diagnosis on an average of 452,000 hospital discharges per year representing 1.5% of all hospitalizations among adults. The annual number of GE hospitalizations has decreased by 20% from approximately 500,000 in 1979 to 400,000 in 1995. The aetiology of 78% of cases coded as GE was undetermined. Until the aetiology of disease can be better established, specific strategies for prevention cannot be developed.