Ascites is a complication of chronic liver disease that is associated with decreased survival. The purpose of the present study was to identify some prognostic factors easily obtainable by the clinician in a large group of cirrhotic patients with ascites, possibly useful for first screening of outpatients as candidates for liver transplantation. We studied 134 ambulatory patients with cirrhosis who came to our outpatient clinic between July 1983 and March 1989 because of an episode of ascites. These patients were then followed up for an average period of 31 +/- 23 months and survival was determined. Thirty-one variables determined at the time of inclusion were analyzed with a Cox proportional hazards model to identify predictors of mortality. Cumulative mortality as of June 30, 1991, was 59%. Factors independently correlated with death were: refractory ascites (relative risk, 4.78), low albumin levels (3.77), high Child-Pugh score (3.31), encephalopathy (2.71), high bilirubin levels (2.03), high gamma-glutamyl-transferase levels (1.87), and old age (1.57). The results show that 1) the occurrence of refractory ascites has a prognostic value superior to those of other variables, and 2) simple clinical and biochemical parameters, most of them components of the Child-Pugh score, are useful for a first screening of ascitic cirrhotic patients as candidates for liver transplantation.