The effects of rifampicin treatment (10 mg.kg-1.day-1) on pruritus and cholestasis were evaluated in 16 patients with primary biliary cirrhosis and pruritus followed up for 2-24 months. Assessment of pruritus severity, liver tests, aminopyrine breath test, and bile acids was done at 2 weeks and every 3 months after the beginning of the study. Two patients (12.5%) were withdrawn after 2 months of treatment because they had hepatitis caused by rifampicin. Four patients were withdrawn after 4 months because of liver transplantation (3 cases) and the development of leg edema associated with administration of rifampicin. The remaining 10 patients received therapy for 14.4 +/- 0.7 months and did not experience side effects. Pruritus improved in all patients and disappeared in 11 patients (79%) after 3 months of treatment. Moreover, all patients followed up for more than 1 year were free of pruritus. The alkaline phosphatase level decreased significantly, and the aminopyrine breath test results increased significantly after 2 weeks of treatment (P less than 0.001) and did not change thereafter. In the 9 patients treated for 15 months, alkaline phosphatase levels decreased to 63% of the basal levels and aminopyrine breath test results increased to 153% of baseline values. Transaminases, gamma-glutamyltransferase, and total bile salt levels decreased significantly after 2 weeks of treatment but returned to baseline after 3 months. No changes in bilirubin and cholesterol levels were observed. It is concluded that long-term rifampicin treatment is effective for relieving pruritus in primary biliary cirrhosis, but liver enzymes should be monitored to detect drug-induced hepatitis.