Failure to escape from mineralocorticoids in compensated cirrhosis is considered a major argument supporting the overflow theory of ascites. To assess the frequency and mechanism of mineralocorticoid escape in cirrhosis, 9-alpha-fluorohydrocortisone (0.6 mg/day) was administered to 19 patients with compensated cirrhosis, portal hypertension, and no history of ascites who were able to maintain sodium balance on a 250 mmol Na+ diet. Fifteen patients (78.9%) escaped from mineralocorticoids, while 4 patients (21.1%) did not escape and developed ascites. Patients who did not escape had significantly higher cardiac index (4.97 +/- 0.42 vs 3.46 +/- 0.21 L.min-1.m-2) and lower peripheral vascular resistance (485.9 +/- 37.5 vs. 665.8 +/- 32.9 dyne.s.cm-5/m2) than those who escaped. Hepatic venous pressure gradient was not significantly different. The escape phenomenon was associated with a significant increase in mean arterial pressure, creatinine clearance, and atrial natriuretic factor and suppression of plasma renin activity. All of these parameters showed minimal or no changes in patients who did not escape. These results indicate that failure to escape from mineralocorticoids is uncommon in patients with compensated cirrhosis, is related to an inadequate expansion of effective plasma volume due to the accumulation of ascites, and occurs in patients with marked peripheral arteriolar vasodilation.