OBJECTIVE--To establish whether a single preoperative dose of cefotaxime plus metronidazole was as effective as a standard three dose regimen of cefuroxime plus metronidazole in preventing wound infection after colorectal surgery. DESIGN--Prospective randomised allocation to one of two prophylactic antibiotic regimens in a parallel group trial. Group sequential analyses of each 250 patients were performed. SETTING--14 District general and teaching hospitals. PATIENTS--1018 Adults having colorectal operations were randomised, of whom 943 were evaluated. Demographic features, conditions requiring surgery, and operative procedures were similar in the two groups. Most patients had surgery for carcinoma of the colon or rectum. INTERVENTIONS--Group 1 received cefotaxime 1 g intravenously plus metronidazole 500 mg intravenously preoperatively. Group 2 received cefuroxime 1.5 g intravenously plus metronidazole 500 mg intravenously preoperatively, followed by cefuroxime 750 mg intravenously plus metronidazole 500 mg intravenously eight hours and 16 hours postoperatively. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--Development of surgical wound infection (as evidenced by the presence of pus), death, or discharge from hospital. RESULTS--Wound condition was scored on a five point scale on alternate days until discharge or for up to 20 days postoperatively. Wound infection rates were: group 1, 32/453 (7.1%; 95% confidence interval 4.7% to 9.4%); group 2, 33/454 (7.3%; 95% confidence interval 4.9% to 9.6%). Death rates (group 1: 26/470 (5.5%); group 2: 31/471 (6.6%], the incidence of postoperative complications, the median duration of hospital stay (12 days), and antibiotic tolerance were all similar in the two groups. Pooled data from groups 1 and 2 showed that wound infections were more frequent when minor faecal contamination had occurred at operation and when the duration of operation exceeded 90 minutes (greater than 90 min 11.2% of cases; less than 90 min 4.8%) and were associated with an extended hospital stay. CONCLUSIONS--A single preoperative dose of cefotaxime plus metronidazole is an efficacious as a three dose regimen of cefuroxime plus metronidazole in preventing wound infection after colorectal surgery and has practical advantages in eliminating the need for postoperative antibiotics.