To investigate whether paracentesis could be an alternative therapy for ascites, 117 cirrhotics with tense ascites were randomly allocated into two groups. Fifty-eight patients (group 1) were treated with paracentesis (4-6 L/day until disappearance of ascites) and intravenous albumin infusion (40 g after each tap). Fifty-nine patients (group 2) were treated with spironolactone (200-400 mg/day) plus furosemide (40-240 mg/day). Patients from group 2 not responding to diuretics were treated with a LeVeen shunt. After disappearance of ascites, patients from both groups were discharged from hospital and were instructed to take diuretics. Patients developing tense ascites during follow-up were readmitted to hospital and treated according to their initial schedule. Paracentesis was effective in eliminating the ascites in 56 patients from group 1 (96.5%) and did not induce significant changes in renal and hepatic function, plasma volume, cardiac index, peripheral resistance, plasma renin activity, plasma norepinephrine and antidiuretic hormone concentration, and urinary excretion of prostaglandin E2 and 6-keto-prostaglandin F1 alpha. Diuretics were effective in eliminating the ascites in 43 patients from group 2 (72.8%) (p less than 0.05). Ten patients in group 1 and 36 in group 2 developed complications during their first hospital stay (p less than 0.001). This difference was due to the significantly higher incidence of hepatic encephalopathy, renal impairment, and electrolyte disturbances occurring in patients treated with diuretics. The duration of hospital stay was 11.7 +/- 1.5 days for patients from group 1 and 31 +/- 2.8 days for patients from group 2 (p less than 0.001). The two groups did not differ significantly with respect to the probability of requiring readmission to hospital during follow-up, reasons for readmission, survival probability after entry into the study, and causes of death. These results indicate that paracentesis associated with intravenous albumin infusion is a fast, effective, and safe therapy for ascites in patients with cirrhosis.