Background: Appropriate management of anxiety disorders in primary care requires clinical assessment and monitoring of the severity of the anxiety. This study focuses on the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) as a severity indicator for anxiety in primary care patients with different anxiety disorders (social phobia, panic disorder with or without agoraphobia, agoraphobia or generalized anxiety disorder), depressive disorders or no disorder (controls). Methods. Participants were 1601 primary care patients participating in the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). Regression analyses were used to compare the mean BAI scores of the different diagnostic groups and to correct for age and gender. Results: Patients with any anxiety disorder had a significantly higher mean score than the controls. A significantly higher score was found for patients with panic disorder and agoraphobia compared to patients with agoraphobia only or social phobia only. BAI scores in patients with an anxiety disorder with a co-morbid anxiety disorder and in patients with an anxiety disorder with a co-morbid depressive disorder were significantly higher than BAI scores in patients with an anxiety disorder alone or patients with a depressive disorder alone. Depressed and anxious patients did not differ significantly in their mean scores. Conclusions: The results suggest that the BAI may be used as a severity indicator of anxiety in primary care patients with different anxiety disorders. However, because the instrument seems to reflect the severity of depression as well, it is not a suitable instrument to discriminate between anxiety and depression in a primary care population. © 2011 Muntingh et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.