BACKGROUND: The detection of lymphoma by computed tomography (CT) scanning is known to be improved by positron emission tomography (PET) and/or gallium scanning, although the direct comparative accuracy of these imaging modalities remains a subject of ongoing review. AIMS: The aim of the present study was to compare PET scanning with conventional imaging (CT and/or gallium scanning) in patients with lymphoma. METHODS: A retrospective study of 38 patients (25 men; 13 women; median age 39.5 years; range 18.0-81.0 years) who had had PET scans (24 scans at initial staging and 46 scans at restaging, including suspected disease relapse) was carried out. Thirty-one concurrent gallium scans had been performed. Disease was validated with clinical follow up or biopsy. RESULTS: The sensitivities of PET and CT at initial staging were 96 and 71%, respectively. PET identified additional sites of disease compared with CT in 29% of patients. Of the 15 patients who had had all three imaging modalities, the sensitivities of PET, CT and gallium were 93, 67 and 87%, respectively. At treatment completion, the positive predictive values of PET, CT and gallium scans for relapse given a residual mass were 100, 33 and 0%, respectively (P = 0.006 for PET and CT comparison). The negative predictive values of PET, CT and gallium were 76, 0 and 70%, respectively (P-value not significant). In suspected disease relapse, PET results changed management in 50% of patients. CONCLUSION: Compared with CT and gallium scans, PET has superior accuracy in staging and restaging, and its greatest value lies in its positive predictive value for relapse in patients with residual masses.