This study evaluates the long-term survival of spinal implants after surgical site infection (SSI) and the risk factors associated with treatment failure. A Kaplan-Meier survival analysis was carried out on 43 patients who had undergone a posterior spinal fusion with instrumentation between January 2006 and December 2008, and who consecutively developed an acute deep surgical site infection. All were appropriately treated by surgical debridement with a tailored antibiotic program based on culture results for a minimum of eight weeks. A 'terminal event' or failure of treatment was defined as implant removal or death related to the SSI. The mean follow-up was 26 months (1.03 to 50.9). A total of ten patients (23.3%) had a terminal event. The rate of survival after the first debridement was 90.7% (95% confidence interval (CI) 82.95 to 98.24) at six months, 85.4% (95% CI 74.64 to 96.18) at one year, and 73.2% (95% CI 58.70 to 87.78) at two, three and four years. Four of nine patients required re-instrumentation after implant removal, and two of the four had a recurrent infection at the surgical site. There was one recurrence after implant removal without reinstrumentation. Multivariate analysis revealed a significant risk of treatment failure in patients who developed sepsis (hazard ratio (HR) 12.5 (95% confidence interval (CI) 2.6 to 59.9); p < 0.001) or who had > three fused segments (HR 4.5 (95% CI 1.25 to 24.05); p = 0.03). Implant survival is seriously compromised even after properly treated surgical site infection, but progressively decreases over the first 24 months. © 2013 The British Editorial Society of Bone & Joint Surgery.