The objective of this study was to investigate the effects of intravenous erythromycin and chronic oral dosing of erythromycin on gastric emptying in patients with idiopathic or diabetic gastroparesis. Symptoms were assessed on oral dosing and during long-term follow-up in an ambulatory setting at a University referral center. Fourteen patients (10 idiopathic and four diabetic gastroparesis) were studied. Four patients left during the 4-wk study; two due to rash, one with cramps and vomiting on erythromycin, and one due to other medical problems. Ten patients completed the 4-wk study and commenced long-term therapy. Five of these patients experienced enough symptomatic relief to continue oral erythromycin long-term, being followed for an average period of 8.4 months. After initial documentation of delayed gastric emptying, patients received 6 mg/kg intravenous erythromycin lactobionate before a second gastric emptying study. Erythromycin base was then given orally at a dose of 500 mg tid-ac and qhs, with a final gastric emptying study performed after 4 wk. During long-term follow-up, erythromycin dosage was adjusted to minimize symptoms. Radionuclide-labeled gastric emptying of a solid meal was studied at baseline, following intravenous erythromycin, and after 4 wk of oral treatment with erythromycin. Symptom scores were assessed at baseline, at 4 wk, and then at 8-wk intervals. The percentage of the solid meal retained in the stomach at 2 h decreased from 85% +/- 11% (SD) at baseline to 20% +/- 29% following intravenous erythromycin (p < 0.001), and to 48% +/- 21% after 4 wk of oral therapy (p < 0.01 vs. baseline). There was a reduction in total symptom scores and a significant reduction in global assessment scores (p = 0.03). We conclude that erythromycin has a strong gastric prokinetic effect in both idiopathic and diabetic gastroparesis, and may represent a useful new therapeutic approach to this problem.