One of the main aims in the management of patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency is to achieve adequate suppression of the adrenal cortex with the smallest possible dose of glucocorticoid substitution. To evaluate the administration schedule of current replacement therapy regimens, we investigated the cortisol-17-hydroxyprogesterone interrelation in 36 patients (13 males and 23 females; median age, 12.3 yr; range, 6.1-18.8 yr) with salt-wasting congenital adrenal hyperplasia. As sufficient variation in 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations was required to allow analysis of the cortisol-17-hydroxyprogesterone interrelation, patients were divided into 2 groups depending on the adequacy of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis suppression. The first group consisted of 17 patients with suppressed 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations (group 1), and the second group consisted of 19 patients with nonsuppressed 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations (group 2). We determined serum cortisol and 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations at 20-min intervals for a total of 24 h while patients were receiving their usual replacement treatment with hydrocortisone and 9alpha-fludrocortisone. We also determined the lowest dose of dexamethasone required to suppress the 0800 h serum ACTH concentrations when administered as a single dose (0.3 or 0.5 mg/m(2)) the night before. Mean 24-h cortisol and 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations were 3.9 microg/dl (SD = 2.1) and 66.2 ng/dl (SD = 92.7), respectively, in group 1 and 4.1 microg/dl (SD = 2.5) and 4865.7 ng/dl (SD = 6951) in group 2. The 24-h 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations demonstrated circadian variation, with peak values observed between 0400-0900 h. In group 2, 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations decreased gradually in response to the rise in cortisol concentrations during the day, but remained low during the night despite the almost undetectable cortisol concentrations between 1600-2000 h. Mean 0800 h androstenedione concentrations correlated strongly with integrated 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations (r = 0.81; P < 0.0001), but not with integrated cortisol concentrations. There was a significant negative correlation between cortisol and 17-hydroxyprogesterone at lag time 0 min (r = -0.187; P < 0.0001), peaking at lag time 60 min (r = -0.302; P < 0.0001), with cortisol leading 17-hydroxyprogesterone by these time intervals. Finally, 0800 h serum ACTH concentrations were sufficiently suppressed after a dexamethasone dose of 0.3 mg/m(2) in all but three patients. These findings indicate that in classic 21-hydroxylase deficiency, hydrocortisone should be administered during the period of increased hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity, between 0400-1600 h, with the biggest dose given in the morning. Blood investigations performed as part of monitoring of congenital adrenal hyperplasia patients should include androstenedione and 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations determined in the morning before the administration of hydrocortisone. It should also be emphasized that blood investigations are only complementary to the overall assessment of these patients, which is primarily based on the evaluation of growth and pubertal progress.