Respiratory syncytial (RS) viruses isolated over three epidemic periods in a children's hospital in the United States were analyzed. The viruses (n = 174) were characterized as to major antigenic group (group A or B) by a PCR- based assay. Group A RS viruses were dominant the first 2 years, followed by a year with group B dominance (ratios of group A to group B viruses for epidemic periods, 56/4 for 1993-1994, 42/3 for 1994-1995, and 19/50 for 1995- 1996). Genetic variability within the groups was assessed by restriction fragment analysis of PCR products; 79 isolates were also analyzed by nucleotide sequence determination of a variable region of the glycoprotein G gene. Among the group A RS virus isolates, this G-protein variable region had amino acid differences of as great as 38%. The G-protein amino acids of the group A viruses differed by up to 31% from the G-protein amino acids of a prototype (A2) group A virus. Among the group B RS virus G proteins, amino acid differences were as great as 14%. The G-protein amino acids of the group B viruses differed by up to 27% from the G-protein amino acids of a prototype (18537) group B virus. The group A and group B RS viruses demonstrated genetic variability between years and within individual years. Phylogenetic analysis revealed that there were multiple evolutionary lineages among both the group A and group B viruses. Among the recent group B isolates, variability was less than that seen for the group A viruses. However, comparisons to prototype strains revealed that the group B RS viruses may vary more extensively than was observed over the 3 years studied in the present investigation.