OBJECTIVES: It is presently not fully understood which risk factors contribute to the occurrence of reflux esophagitis and how such factors might influence the severity of the disease. The aim of this study was to delineate the clinical epidemiology of erosive reflux esophagitis. METHODS: Outpatients from a medicine and gastroenterology clinic who underwent upper GI endoscopy were recruited into a case-control study. A total of 1533 patients with and 3428 patients without endoscopically diagnosed reflux esophagitis were categorized as case and control subjects, respectively. Using multivariate logistic regressions for statistical analysis, the presence of esophageal erosions, ulcers or strictures, served as three separate outcome variables. Demographic characteristics, intake of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, and the presence of hiatus hernia or peptic ulcer served as predictor variables. RESULTS: Erosive reflux esophagitis tended to occur more frequently in Caucasian male patients. Hiatus hernia was associated with a strong risk for developing esophageal erosions, ulcers, and strictures. Although statistical significance was demonstrated only for esophageal erosions, in all grades of reflux esophagitis alike, gastric and duodenal ulcer exerted a protective influence. Consumption of NSAIDs increased the risk for esophageal ulcers only. Smoking and alcohol were not associated with an increased risk of developing any type of erosive reflux esophagitis. CONCLUSIONS: The results stress the critical role played by hiatus hernia in all grades of erosive reflux esophagitis. NSAIDs may act through a mechanism of topically induced esophageal injury. Our data also suggest that the presence of either gastric or duodenal ulcer exerts a protective influence against the development of reflux disease.