We retrospectively evaluated the clinical and pathologic effects of hypothermia and high-dose barbiturate therapy on hypoxic/ischemic cerebral injury after near-drowning in children. Of 40 near-drowned patients admitted to the ICU, 13 died, seven had permanent cerebral damage, and 20 survived. Twenty-four patients (group 1) were treated with a regime of hyperventilation, hypothermia, and high-dose phenobarbitone while intracranial pressure (ICP) was continuously monitored. Of ten who died in this group, three were diagnosed as having cerebral death shortly after admission; autopsy revealed severe cerebral edema with herniation. The remaining seven nonsurvivors had severe cerebral hypoxia without raised ICP and had the features of severe adult respiratory distress syndrome and hypoxic/ischemic damage to other organs. Six of these seven patients developed septicemia which was invariably associated with a profound neutropenia. Sixteen patients (group 2) were treated with a similar protocol but without hypothermia. Three of these patients died but only one developed septicemia. Neutropenia after resuscitation from near-drowning seemed to indicate a poor prognosis; the mean polymorphonuclear leukocyte count in nonsurvivors (1.9 ± 0.5 x 109 cell/L) was significantly (p < .01) lower than that in survivors (6.4 ± 1.1 x 109 cell/L). Hypothermia was associated with a decreased number of circulating PMNs but did not increase the number of neurologically intact survivors. Similarly, although barbiturates may control ICP, their use did not improve outcome. Because severe cerebral edema and herniation after near-drowning is usually associated with irreversible brain damage, measures to control brain swelling such as hypothermia and barbiturates will be of little benefit. Therapy should be directed at maintaining cerebral perfusion and adequate oxygenation to prevent further damage to vital organs.