The clinical need for attenuation correction of whole-body positron emission tomography (PET) images is controversial, especially because of the required increase in imaging time. In this study, regional tracer distribution in attenuation-corrected and uncorrected images was compared in order to delineate the potential advantages of attenuation correction for clinical application. An ECAT EXACT scanner and a protocol including five to seven bed positions, emission scans of 9 min and post-injection transmission scans of 10 min per bed position were used. Uncorrected and attenuation-corrected images were reconstructed by filtered backprojection. In total, 109 areas of focal fluorine-18 fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) uptake in 34 patients undergoing PET for the staging of malignancies were analysed. To measure focus contrast, a ratio of focus (target) to background average countrates (t/b ratio) was obtained from transaxial slices using a region of interest technique. Calculation of focus diameters by a distance measurement tool and visual determination of focus borders were performed. In addition, images of a body phantom with spheres to simulate focal FDG uptake were acquired. Transmission scans with and without radioactivity in the phantom were used with increasing transmission scanning times (2-30 min). The t/b ratios of the spheres were calculated and compared for the different imaging protocols. In patients, the t/b ratio was significantly higher for uncorrected images than for attenuation-corrected images (5.0+/-3.6 vs 3.1+/-1.4; P<0.001). This effect was independent of focus localization, tissue type and distance to body surface. Compared with the attenuation-corrected images, foci in uncorrected images showed larger diameters in the anterior-posterior dimension (27+/-14 vs 23+/-12 mm; P<0.001) but smaller diameters in the left-right dimension (19+/-11 vs 21+/-11 mm; P<0.001). Phantom data confirmed higher contrast in uncorrected images compared with attenuation-corrected images. It is concluded that, although distortion of foci was demonstrated, uncorrected images provided higher contrast for focal FDG uptake independent of tumour localization. In most clinical situations, the main issue of whole-body PET is pure lesion detection with the highest contrast possible, and not quantification of tracer uptake. The present data suggest that attenuation correction may not be necessary for this purpose.