The efficacy and complications of esophageal tamponade as the first procedure in the routine management of acute variceal hemorrhage were evaluated in 151 consecutive bleeding episodes treated at a specialized unit. The Sengstaken-Blakemore tube was employed in the 118 cases in which emergency endoscopy demonstrated bleeding esophageal varices, and the Linton-Nachlas balloon in the 33 cases with bleeding from gastric varices. Hemostasis lasting at least 24 hr was obtained in 91.5% of cases treated with the Sengstaken-Blakemore balloon and in 88% of those treated with the Linton-Nachlas balloon. Permanent hemostasis was obtained in 47.7% of all cases. The only severe complication noted in these 151 episodes of bleeding treated by tamponade was pulmonary aspiration, which was detected in 10% of cases. This complication was related to the presence and degree of encephalopathy (P less than 0.001) and was prevented by orotracheal intubation prior to tamponade. These results indicate that balloon tamponade continues to be a reliable and valuable method to arrest bleeding from esophagogastric varices.