Life-threatening reactions to intravenous protamine, administered to reverse heparin anticoagulation, have been reported with increasing frequency as a consequence of the escalating use of cardiac catheterization and coronary bypass surgery. Retrospective studies have shown that such reactions are more common in diabetic patients receiving daily subcutaneous injections of protamine-insulin preparations. To determine whether anti-protamine IgE or IgG antibodies might explain the increased risk for protamine reactions among patients with protamine-insulin-dependent diabetes, we conducted a case-control study of 27 patients (diabetic and nondiabetic) who had acute reactions to intravenous protamine and 43 diabetic patients who tolerated protamine without a reaction during diagnostic or surgical procedures. Cases and controls were grouped according to previous exposure to protamine-insulin preparations. In diabetic patients who had received protamine-insulin injections, the presence of serum antiprotamine IgE antibody was a significant risk factor for acute protamine reactions (relative risk, 95; P = 1.0 X 10(-5), as was antiprotamine IgG (relative risk, 38; P = 1.2 X 10(-5). No patients without previous exposure to protamine-insulin injections had serum protamine IgE antibodies. In this group, anti-protamine IgG antibody was a risk factor for protamine reactions (relative risk, 25; P = 0.0062). We conclude that in protamine-insulin-dependent diabetics, the increased risk of serious reactions when intravenous protamine was given appeared to be caused largely by antibody-mediated mechanisms. In nondiabetic subjects, the presence of protamine IgG was significantly associated with an increased risk of acute protamine reactions, although many nondiabetic subjects who had reactions had no IgG antibodies.