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Subjects with a family history of colorectal cancer (CRC) are at increased risk of CRC, but quantification of the risk in different populations, the possible differences in risk according to localization of the cancer and the association of family history of other cancers with CRC risk are still open issues. We have therefore analysed data from a multicentric case-control study conducted in six Italian areas between 1992 and 1996 of 1225 incident cases of colon cancer, 728 cases of rectal cancer and 4154 controls admitted for acute conditions to the same network of hospitals as the cases. Unconditional logistic regression models including terms for gender, age, study centre, years of education and number of siblings were used to estimate the odds ratios (ORs) of CRC according to various aspects of history of CRC and other cancers in first-degree relatives. The OR for family history of CRC was 3.2 (95% confidence interval, CI, 2.5-4.1) for colon cancer and 2.2 (95% CI 1.6-3.1) for rectal cancer. Colon cancer was significantly associated with a family history of stomach (OR 1.4), bone (OR 2.1) and kidney (OR 2.3) cancers, while rectal cancer was significantly associated with a family history of lymphomas (OR 2.8). There was a 30% higher risk of colon and rectal cancer in subjects with a family history of any cancer, excluding intestine. The ORs for family history of CRC were 5.2 for colon and 6.3 for rectum when the proband's age was below 45 years. The ORs were similar when the affected relative was a parent or a sibling and in different strata of age of relative(s). For subjects with two or more first-degree relatives with CRC, the risk was 6.9 for the right colon, 5.8 for the transverse and descending colon, 3.8 for the sigma, 3.2 for the rectosigmoid junction and 1.9 for the rectum. This study confirms that a family history of CRC in first-degree relatives increases the risk of both colon and rectal cancer, the association being stronger at younger ages and for right colon.