In patients with primary pulmonary hypertension the administration of a vasodilating drug is often used to test pulmonary vasoreactivity. Hydralazine has been employed as a test drug, but because of its long duration of action there is a risk of sustained systemic arterial hypotension in patients with a fixed pulmonary vascular resistance. In this study we compared the acute hemodynamic effects of intravenous prostacyclin, a potent, short-acting vasodilator, with the effects of oral or intravenous hydralazine. Both prostacyclin and hydralazine increased cardiac output and decreased systemic pressure without changing pulmonary arterial pressure in seven patients with primary pulmonary hypertension. The average decrease in total pulmonary resistance with prostacyclin (-46% +/- 5%) was more than that with hydralazine (-32% +/- 6%). The respective decreases in total systemic resistance were -50% +/- 4% vs -43% +/- 6%. The percent changes in individual responses to the two agents were correlated (p less than 0.05) for pulmonary arterial pressure, systemic arterial pressure, total pulmonary resistance, and total systemic resistance. We concluded that the pulmonary hemodynamic effects of prostacyclin resembled those of hydralazine. Prostacyclin may predict the acute pulmonary hemodynamic effects of hydralazine in primary pulmonary hypertension and because of its prompt, brief action may provide greater patient safety.