To assess the efficacy of beta-blockers in preventing rebleeding in selected cirrhotic patients and to compare the tolerance, safety and patient compliance of a selective and a nonselective beta-blocker, 94 patients were randomly assigned to propranolol (32 patients), atenolol (32 patients) or placebo (30 patients). Randomization was made at least 15 days after the bleeding episode. Propranolol was given orally at increasing doses until the resting pulse rate was reduced by approximately 25%. Atenolol was given at a fixed dose of 100 mg per day. Patients were followed up for a mean of 357 days. Rebleeding occurred in 14 patients in the placebo group, 10 in the atenolol group and eight in the propranolol group. The incidence of rebleeding was significantly lower in patients receiving propranolol than in those on placebo (propranolol vs. placebo: p = 0.01, logrank test). Atenolol was less effective than propranolol (atenolol vs. placebo: p = 0.065, logrank test). Bleeding-free survival was better for patients on active drugs than for those on placebo (propranolol vs. placebo = p = 0.01, atenolol vs. placebo: p = 0.05, logrank test). Retrospective analysis revealed that, whatever the type of treatment, abstinence from alcohol was crucial in preventing rebleeding. We conclude that beta-blocker treatment is effective in preventing rebleeding from esophageal varices in carefully selected alcoholic cirrhotic patients who survive at least 2 weeks after acute variceal hemorrhage and stop drinking.