This was an observational study of efficacy and resource utilisation over three years in a cohort of 917 patients who received at least one prescription for an oral antibiotic between January and March 1989 in a large rural primary care health centre in Tayside, Scotland. Three thousand, six hundred and sixty three prescriptions were issued (2286 to females) for; 1502 upper respiratory tract infections, 419 lower respiratory tract infections, 441 urinary tract infections, 177 skinand soft tissue infections, 97 gynaecological infections, 103 cases of acne and 71 other infections. Excluding acne, 14% of infections required more than one antibiotic to achieve a successful outcome. The highest success rates for antibiotics were amoxycillin (92%) and penicillin V (92%) in upper respiratory tract infections, erythromycin (90%) in lower respiratory tract infections and co-trimoxazole (83%) in urinary tract infections. The most cost-effective antibiotics were penicillin V for upper respiratory tract infection, erythromycin for lower respiratory tract infection and co-trimoxazole for urinary tract infection. Varying the value placed on general practitioners' time did not change the rank order of antibiotic cost-effectiveness. The efficacy and cost-effectiveness of the treatment of acute infections in primary care varies considerably with the antibiotic used as first choice. More expensive antibiotics might be justified in cost-effectiveness terms if they had high cure rates in clinical practice.