BACKGROUND: In Ethiopia where there is no strong surveillance system and diagnostic facilities are limited, the real burden of tuberculosis (TB) lymphadenitis is not well known. Therefore, we conducted a study to estimate the prevalence of TB lymphadenitis in Southwest Ethiopia. METHODS: A community based cross-sectional study was conducted from February to March 2009 in the Gilgel Gibe field research area. A total of 30,040 individuals 15 years or older in 10,882 households were screened for TB lymphadenitis. Any individual 15 years or older with lumps in the neck, armpits or groin up on interview were considered TB lymphadenitis suspect. The diagnosis of TB lymphadenitis was established when acid fast bacilli (AFB) smear microscopy of fine needle aspiration (FNA) sample, culture or cytology suggested TB. HIV counseling and testing was offered to all TB lymphadenitis suspects. Descriptive and bivariate analysis was done using SPSS version 15. RESULTS: Complete data were available for 27,597 individuals. A total of 87 TB lymphadenitis suspects were identified. Most of the TB lymphadenitis suspects were females (72.4%). Sixteen cases of TB lymphadenitis were confirmed. The prevalence of TB lymphadenitis was thus 58.0 per 100,000 people (16/27,597) (95% CI 35.7-94.2). Individuals who had a contact history with chronic coughers (OR 5.58, 95% CI 1.23-25.43) were more likely to have TB lymphadenitis. Lymph nodes with caseous FNA were more likely to be positive for TB lymphadenitis (OR 5.46, 95% CI 1.69-17.61). CONCLUSION: The prevalence of TB lymphadenitis in Gilgel Gibe is similar with the WHO estimates for Ethiopia. Screening of TB lymphadenitis particularly for family members who have contact with chronic coughers is recommended. Health extension workers could be trained to screen and refer TB lymphadenitis suspects using simple methods.