In insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) elevated exchangeable sodium (Na) levels are found even in the absence of hypertension, but it is not known whether this is associated with increased sensitivity of blood pressure to sodium level. To clarify this issue we compared 30 patients with IDDM (19 without and 11 with microalbuminuria, i.e. more than 30 mg albumin/day) and 30 control subjects matched for age, gender and body mass index. The subjects were studied on the 4th day of a low-salt diet (20 mmol/day) under in-patient conditions and were subsequently changed to the same diet with a high-salt supplement, yielding a total daily intake of 220 mmol Na/day. Circadian blood pressure, plasma renin activity (PRA), plasma atrial natriuretic factor (p-ANF), plasma cyclic guanosine 5'-phosphate (p-cGMP) and urinary albumin were measured. The proportion of salt-sensitive subjects, i.e. showing increment of mean arterial pressure > or = 3 mmHg on high-salt diet, was 43% in diabetic patients (50% of diabetic patients with and 37% without microalbuminuria) and 17% in control subjects (p < 0.05). Lying and standing PRA levels on low- or high-salt diet were significantly lower in diabetic patients than in control subjects. Salt-sensitive diabetic patients had significantly higher lying ANF on high-salt (38.7 +/- 4.2 pmol/l vs 20.1 +/- 2.3 pmol/l, p < 0.005) than on low-salt diet. The results suggest that (i) the prevalence of sodium sensitivity is high in IDDM (ii) sodium sensitivity is found even in the absence of nephropathy as indicated by albuminuria.