We compared cefonicid (2 g every 12 h) and ceftriaxone (2 g every 24 h) for their efficacy and safety in treating spontaneous bacterial peritonitis in cirrhotic patients in an open randomized clinical trial (30 patients in each group). Clinical, laboratory, and bacteriologic characteristics were similar in both groups. Ceftriaxone-susceptible strains were isolated on 44 occasions (94%), and cefonicid-susceptible strains were isolated on 43 occasions (91.5%). The antibiotic concentration in ascitic fluid/MIC ratio for ceftriaxone was > 100 throughout the dose interval (24 h), while it was lower for cefonicid (between 1 and 18). A total of 100% of patients treated with ceftriaxone, and 94% of those treated with cefonicid were cured of their infections (P was not significant). Hospitalization mortality was 37% in the cefonicid group and 30% in the ceftriaxone group (P was not significant). The time that elapsed between the initiation of treatment and the patient's death was shorter in the cefonicid group patients (5.3 +/- 3.90 days) than in the ceftriaxone group patients (11.8 +/- 9.15 days) (P < 0.05). None of the patients presented with superinfections, and only two patients treated with cefonicid and three patients treated with ceftriaxone developed colonizations with Enterococcus faecalis or Candida albicans. Ceftriaxone and cefonicid are safe and useful agents for treating cirrhotic spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, although the pharmacokinetic characteristics of ceftriaxone seem to be more advantageous than those of cefonicid.