To test the hypothesis that opioid agonist activity contributes to the pruritus of cholestasis, a placebo-controlled single-blinded trial of naloxone, an opioid antagonist, was conducted in eight patients with primary biliary cirrhosis. After discontinuation of all conventional antipruritic medications, one or two continuous (24-hour) IV infusions of naloxone (0.2 micrograms.kg-1.min-1) and placebo solution were administered consecutively in an order that was not predetermined. Pruritus was assessed subjectively by means of four hourly recordings of a visual analogue score. In addition, objective measurements of scratching activity that were independent of gross body movements were continuously recorded using an apparatus specifically designed to measure the frequencies associated with this activity. No side effects associated with naloxone infusions were observed. Only scratching activity data obtained for the same periods of day and night during both naloxone and placebo infusions were compared. Naloxone infusions were consistently associated with a decrease in values of the scratching activity index. In addition, in 50% of the patients the infusions were associated with a decrease in visual analogue score. The mean decrease in scratching activity ranged from 29% to 96% (mean, 50%; P less than 0.001). These findings imply that increased opioid agonist activity contributes to scratching activity in cholestatic patients.