Our objective was to determine whether methotrexate is an effective steroid-sparing agent for patients with severe asthma. Published reports of controlled trials assessing the use of methotrexate in asthma were identified by a search of the MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, Biological Abstracts on CD, and Current Contents databases. Bibliographies from identified studies and from review articles were manually searched. Published and unpublished reports in any language were identified and assessed for inclusion in the meta-analysis. We selected randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in which low-dose methotrexate was administered to corticosteroid-dependent asthmatics, and oral steroids were subsequently tapered according to the patients' clinical status. Data were extracted independently by two reviewers. For all eligible trials, the mean reduction in oral corticosteroid dose, the mean change in FEV1, and the standard deviations, were calculated for the treatment and control groups. Data concerning side-effects of therapy were also extracted. Data from 12 studies, reporting on a total of 250 patients, were pooled using a weighted average method, with weights proportional to the inverse of the variance of the treatment effect. Compared to placebo, the use of methotrexate was associated with a pooled 6.0% improvement in FEV1 (95% CI, 1.0-11%) and an 18.2% reduction in oral steroid use (95% CI, 11.7-24.7%). This corresponded to a 3.3 mg day-1 greater reduction in oral steroid use for patients taking methotrexate than for those taking placebo (95% CI, 2.1-4.4 mg day-1). Gastrointestinal complications and transient increases in liver enzymes were more common in patients randomized to methotrexate. Three potentially life-threatening side-effects (two pneumonias and one liver dysfunction) occurred in 159 patients randomized to methotrexate vs. none in those patients on placebo. It was concluded that methotrexate allowed a modest reduction in oral corticosteroid compared to patients receiving placebo. The benefit is relatively small, however, and should be balanced against the potential for side-effects associated with the use of methotrexate.