Olsalazine (2 g/day) and sulphasalazine (3 g/day) were compared in a double blind three centre trial in 37 patients presenting with first attack of distal colitis. Sigmoidoscopic appearances, rectal biopsies, and symptom and stool diary records were used to assess benefit and adverse effects. Both groups showed a similar decrease in stool frequency (p less than 0.001). The proportion of unformed stools was also decreased, but to a lesser extent (p less than 0.05) in those taking olsalazine (78% v 55%; p less than 0.001) compared with those taking sulphasalazine (72% v 28%; p less than 0.001). There was a diminution in the proportion of stools containing blood in both groups (olsalazine: 61% v 22%; p less than 0.001/sulphasalazine: 67% v 37%; p less than 0.001). Sigmoidoscopic and histological appearances and clinical activity improved significantly and to a similar extent in both groups. Intolerance was encountered in two patients on olsalazine and four on sulphasalazine; intolerance to sulphasalazine being even higher (five of seven patients) in a preliminary study using a dose of sulphasalazine releasing the same amount of 5-aminosalicylic acid as 2 g olsalazine. Olsalazine was at least as effective as sulphasalazine in the treatment of new patients with distal colitis, and in a dose releasing an equivalent amount of 5-aminosalicylic acid was better tolerated.