There are conflicting reports on the propensity of topical beta blockers to produce corneal anaesthesia. We measured corneal sensitivity thresholds quantitatively for 10 minutes following the administration of one drop of topical timolol maleate (0.5%), betaxolol hydrochloride (0.5%), or saline in 30 eyes of 18 normal subjects in a randomised, double-masked study. Most subjects had insignificant changes in corneal sensitivity thresholds. We identified, however, a subgroup of four subjects (five eyes) that had a marked and prolonged increase of corneal sensitivity threshold (corneal anaesthesia) after timolol (three eyes) and betaxolol (two eyes). The group mean age of these 'responders' (49.0 years) was significantly greater (p less than 0.005) than that of the non-responders (35.0). We recommend periodic measurements of corneal sensitivity in older patients receiving topical timolol or betaxolol, especially when given in higher concentrations, to identify responders, who may be at risk of developing keratitis.