Cyclosporine (CsA) is effective in treating steroid-dependent (SDNS) and steroid-resistant (SRNS) nephrotic syndrome (NS) in children, but because of the potential for chronic nephrotoxicity, its long-term use is controversial. This study reports the results of long-term CsA treatment in 22 children with idiopathic NS. Indications for treatment included SDNS (N = 7) and SRNS (N = 15) children. Pre-CsA histology showed minimal change disease in three patients, immunoglobulin M nephropathy (IgM) in 14 patients, and focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) in five patients. All patients had normal initial serum creatinine values. CsA was added to prednisone at 6.3 +/- 0.4 mg/kg per day (mean +/- SE) and adjusted to maintain whole blood trough HPLC levels of 70 to 120 ng/mL for a period of 6 to 53 months (mean, 22 months). Analysis by clinical course revealed that 13 of 15 patients with SRNS (87%) entered remission after a mean duration of CsA treatment of 58 days, whereas seven of seven patients with SDNS were able to be weaned off of daily prednisone therapy. Histologic analysis showed that all five patients with FSGS and 13 of 14 patients with IgM nephropathy either entered remission or were weaned off of daily steroids. Ten of the 22 patients (45%) with complete remission required CsA plus low-dose alternate-day prednisone to maintain remission. Hypertension was seen in eight of 22 patients (36%). No patient had a significant increase in serum creatinine concentration. Renal biopsies performed in 12 patients after 12 to 41 months (mean, 21 months) of CsA therapy showed no nephrotoxicity or disease progression in ten patients. Progression of the previous interstitial fibrosis and tubular atrophy was noted in two patients, suggesting a 17% incidence of CsA nephrotoxicity. This analysis of the long-term risks and benefits of CsA for childhood NS has identified two important findings: (1) combined CsA and alternate-day steroids can be highly effective in inducing complete remission in patients with SRNS and biopsy-proven IgM nephropathy, and (2) long-term use of CsA in moderate doses with closely monitored levels can result in a relatively low incidence of nephrotoxicity.