Although prednisone has been used to treat patients with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, its efficacy has not been rigorously studied. We therefore randomly assigned 102 patients to either treatment with prednisone (60 mg per day) or a control group. At three months, improvement, defined prospectively as an increase in the ejection fraction of greater than or equal to 5 percentage points, was observed in 53 percent of the patients receiving prednisone and 27 percent of the controls (P = 0.005). The mean (+/- SE) ejection fraction increased 4.3 +/- 1.5 percentage points (from 17.9 +/- 1.0 to 22.2 +/- 1.6 percent) in the prednisone group, as compared with 2.1 +/- 0.8 percentage points (from 17.1 +/- 1.1 to 19.3 +/- 1.4 percent) in the control group (P = 0.054). All patients were categorized prospectively in two separately randomized subgroups. "Reactive" patients (n = 60) were those who had fibroblastic (n = 36) or lymphocytic (n = 2) infiltration or immunoglobulin deposition (n = 16) on endomyocardial biopsy, a positive gallium scan (n = 7), or an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (n = 18). "Nonreactive" patients (n = 42) had none of these features. At three months, 67 percent of the reactive patients who received prednisone had improvement, as compared with 28 percent of the reactive controls (P = 0.004). Nonreactive patients did not improve significantly with prednisone (P = 0.51). After three months, reactive patients who received prednisone daily were switched to alternate-day therapy (60 mg every other day), and after six months the improvement seen earlier was no longer present. These data suggest that patients with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy may have some improvement when given a high dose of prednisone daily. However, the increases in the ejection fraction that we observed during prednisone treatment were small, their duration was limited, and the side effects were important. Overall, prednisone was judged to have only marginal clinical benefit, and should not be administered as standard therapy for dilated cardiomyopathy.