Data from the surveillance scheme of all general outbreaks of infectious intestinal disease in England and Wales reported to, or otherwise identified, by the Public Health Laboratory Service Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre (CDSC) in 1992 and 1994 were used to describe the epidemiology of outbreaks of infectious intestinal disease in residential institutions. Outbreaks in residential institutions accounted for 22% (282/1275) of all outbreaks with most, 95% (268/282), occurring in homes for the elderly. The commonest pathogens in these 282 outbreaks were small round structured viruses 48% (132), salmonellas 17% (49) Clostridium perfringens 8% (23), rotavirus 5% (15) and Shigella sonnei 2% (6). The mode of transmission was described as mainly person to person in 71% (200 outbreaks) and mainly foodborne in 21% (58 outbreaks). The mean duration of outbreaks was 9 days. Duration of outbreaks varied with both the mode of transmission and the pathogen involved. The mean attack rate was 37%. Illness was reported in 5872 people. One or more individuals were admitted to hospital in 22% of outbreaks. Twenty-six deaths were reported, of which 18 were attributed to salmonellosis. Outbreaks in residential institutions are common. Attack rates are high and outbreaks are often prolonged, with high morbidity and mortality. There is a need for effective infection control policies which include appropriate training of staff simple surveillance systems and readily available expert advice to ensure outbreaks are rapidly controlled.