The purpose of this study was to compare transthoracic and transesophageal echocardiography in the diagnosis of various types of atrial septal defects. Forty-one adult patients with the clinical diagnosis of atrial septal defect were studied by transthoracic and transesophageal echocardiography (30 women, 11 men; 18 to 81 years of age). Transthoracic echocardiography demonstrated the atrial septal defect in 33 patients (secundum type in 28, primum type in 3 and sinus venosus type in 2). Transesophageal echocardiography demonstrated the defect in all 41 patients. Thus, in 8 (20%) of 41 patients the atrial septal defect was demonstrated by transesophageal and not by transthoracic echocardiography. Six of the eight had a sinus venosus type atrial septal defect; the other two patients had a secundum atrial septal defect (one of these two had a technically poor transthoracic echocardiogram and the other had a small atrial septal defect). Transthoracic echocardiography, therefore, failed to demonstrate the sinus venosus defect in six (75%) of eight patients. An anomalous venous connection associated with the sinus venosus defect was visualized by transesophageal echocardiography in seven of the eight patients but was not seen on transthoracic echocardiography in any patient. Sinus venosus type atrial septal defects are frequently not visualized in adults by conventional transthoracic echocardiography. Transesophageal echocardiography is recommended when an atrial septal defect is clinically suspected but cannot be visualized by transthoracic echocardiography.