During an 18-month period, 592 acute oral drug overdose patients were studied prospectively in a controlled, randomized fashion to determine the efficacy of gastric emptying procedures in altering clinical outcome. Patients presenting on even-numbered days had no gastric emptying procedures performed, and they were compared to patients presenting on odd-numbered days who received either syrup of ipecac or gastric lavage. Patients were carefully followed for evidence of subsequent clinical improvement or deterioration after initial management. Syrup of ipecac did not significantly alter the clinical outcome of patients who were awake and alert on presentation to the emergency department (ED). Gastric lavage in obtunded patients led to a more satisfactory clinical outcome (P less than .05) only if performed within one hour of ingestion. Gastric emptying procedures in the ED for initial treatment of drug overdose are generally not of benefit unless gastric lavage is performed within one hour of ingestion in obtunded patients.