Esophageal perforation is associated with high morbidity and mortality rates, particularly if not diagnosed and treated promptly. Despite the many advances in thoracic surgery, the management of patients with esophageal perforation remains controversial. We performed a retrospective clinical review of 36 patients, 15 women (41.7%) and 21 men (58.3%), treated at our hospital for esophageal perforation between 1989 and 2002. The mean age was 54.3 years (range 7-76 years). Iatrogenic causes were found in 63.9% of perforations, foreign body perforation in 16.7%, traumatic perforation in 13.9% and spontaneous rupture in 5.5%. Perforation occurred in the cervical esophagus in 12 cases, thoracic esophagus in 13 and abdominal esophagus in 11. Pain was the most common presenting symptom, occurring in 24 patients (66.7%). Dyspnea was noted in 14 patients (38.9%), fever in 12 (33.3%) and subcutaneous emphysema in 25 (69.4%). Management of esophageal perforation included primary closure in 19 (52.8%), resection in seven (19.4%) and non-surgical therapy in 10 (27.8%). The 30-day mortality was found to be 13.9%, and mean hospital stay was 24.4 days. In the surgically treated group the mortality rate was three of 26 patients (11.5%), and two of 10 patients (20%) in the conservatively managed group. Survival was significantly influenced by a delay of more than 24 h in the initiation of treatment. Primary closure within 24 h resulted in the most favorable outcome. Esophageal perforation is a life threatening condition, and any delay in diagnosis and therapy remains a major contributor to the attendant mortality.