To evaluate prevalence of use and prescribing patterns of antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) in Italian general practice. Primary care data were obtained from the Health Search Database, a longitudinal observational database implemented by the Italian College of General Practitioners (GPs). We selected 465 061 subjects registered by the end of 2005 in the lists of 320 GPs, homogeneously distributed throughout Italy. Prevalence of AED use was assessed in the entire sample and by drug type, age group, year and main geographic area (north, centre and south/islands). Overall, 24 383 subjects (5.2%) received at least one AED prescription in the study period. Prevalence of AED use (with 95% confidence interval) increased progressively from 7.1 (6.9–7.3) in 2000 to 11.8 (11.5–12.1) in 2005 for old AEDs and from 1.1 (1.0–1.2) to 12.2 (11.9–12.5) for new AEDs. Carbamazepine, phenobarbital and valproic acid were the most common AEDs until 2003, when gabapentin became first. There were no differences in prescribing patterns in the three main geographic areas. Newer AEDs were mostly used in patients aged 65 years and older. The more widespread use of newer AEDs was for mood disorders or pain. Older AED currently remain first line drugs for epileptic disorders. An increasing use of AEDs has been recently observed over a 6-year period in Italian general practice, mostly explained by newer compounds used for conditions other than epilepsy.