The effect of propylthiouracil (PTU; 300 mg/day) on alcoholic liver disease was evaluated in 133 patients in a short-term randomized double-blind trial. Severity of the disease was assessed by a composite clinical and laboratory index (CCLI). A normalization rate (NR) representing the rate of improvement in CCLI was calculated. Patients with alcoholic hepatitis, with and without cirrhosis, showed a significantly higher NR on PTU (43.6 +/- 4.6) than on placebo (19.8 +/- 3.3; P less than 0.001). A similar effect was observed in patients with abnormal prothrombin (no biopsy): NR was 32.9 +/- 6.9 on PTU and 2.6 +/- 3.7 on placebo (P less than 0.005). The effect of PTU on each clinical and laboratory component of the CCLI was also compared in these two groups. In 38 patients with alcoholic hepatitis and in 25 with abnormal prothrombin, those on PTU showed a greater improvement in 15 of 15 items (P less than 0.001) and 14 of 15 (P less than 0.01), respectively. When patients were divided according to the severity of the disease into those in the lower and upper halves of the CCLI range (81 and 52 patients, respectively), PTU was shown to have a significant effect only in the latter: The NR was 41.4 +/- 3.8 on PTU and 22.5 +/- 4.2 on placebo (P less than 0.005). PTU was ineffective in patients with inactive cirrhosis.