This study was undertaken to characterize the laboratory and clinical course of patients with AIDS and cryptococcal meningitis who had normal or elevated cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pressure. Data were obtained retrospectively from a randomized multicenter quasifactorial phase III study comparing amphotericin B with or without flucytosine in primary treatment of cryptococcal meningitis. CSF pressure was measured before treatment and at 2 weeks. Repeated lumbar punctures were done to drain CSF and to reduce pressure. Patients with the highest baseline opening pressures (> or = 250 mm H2O) were distinguished by higher titers of cryptococcal capsular polysaccharide antigen in CSF; more frequently positive India ink smears of CSF; and more frequent headache, meningismus, papilledema, hearing loss, and pathological reflexes. After receiving antifungal therapy, those patients whose CSF pressure was reduced by >10 mm or did not change had more frequent clinical response at 2 weeks than did those whose pressure increased >10 mm (P<.001). Patients with pretreatment opening pressure <250 mm H2O had increased short-term survival compared with those with higher pressure. We recommend that opening pressures >/=250 mm H2O be treated with large-volume CSF drainage.