Staphylococcus aureus is a leading cause of bacteraemia. This study analysed temporal trends from 18 702 adult cases of S. aureus bacteraemia in Denmark between 1981 and 2000. After stratification for mode of acquisition, 57% of cases were hospital-acquired (HA), 28% were community-acquired (CA) and 15% were of undetermined acquisition (UA). Incidence rates increased from 18.2 to 30.5 cases/100 000 population. Annual rates increased by 6.4% for CA, by 2.2% for HA and by 3.6% for UA cases, respectively. Case-mortality associated with HA bacteraemia decreased from 36.2% to 20.7% (43% rate reduction, p 0.0001), compared with a decrease from 34.5% to 26.5% (23% rate reduction, p 0.0001) for CA bacteraemia. Following multivariate analysis, age, pneumonia, endocarditis and chronic illness were associated with increased mortality, regardless of the mode of acquisition. Overall, mortality associated with S. aureus bacteraemia declined significantly between 1981 and 2000, but incidence rates doubled, so that the total number of deaths increased. These data emphasise the public health importance of S. aureus bacteraemia and the need for further preventive measures and improved care in order to reduce incidence rates and improve outcomes.