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A randomized controlled clinical trial was undertaken in 542 consecutive emergency and elective abdominal operations, with one group of patients receiving tetracycline peritoneal and wound lavage and the other a single intravenous injection of 1 g latamoxef at induction of anaesthesia. Seventy-five patients were withdrawn because no potentially contaminated hollow viscus was opened, and a further 36 because they could not be assessed for wound infection. Of the remaining 431 patients, 212 received latamoxef resulting in 5 major and 8 minor wound infections in hospital; another 4 minor infections occurred at home (total incidence 8.0%). In the tetracycline group (n = 219) there were 7 major and 19 minor wound infections in hospital and 10 minor infections later (total incidence 16.4%). This is significantly higher than the rate with latamoxef (P = 0.012). Monitoring of operative and postoperative bleeding revealed no evidence (except in one doubtful case) of excessive bleeding associated with the use of a single dose of latamoxef. It is concluded that single-dose preoperative latamoxef is more effective than peroperative tetracycline lavage for the prevention of wound infections after potentially contaminated abdominal operations.