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In previously published studies ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) showed beneficial effect on the course of chronic hepatitis. We investigated the effect of UDCA on the course of acute viral hepatitis in a prospective double-blind study.Seventy-eight consecutive patients were randomly assigned either to the UDCA group or to placebo. At 12 months of follow-up 76 patients were available for the final assessment. The analysis of all cases and of the patients with hepatitis B (n = 59) showed a comparable rate of decline of the alanine aminotransferase and other liver function tests in the treatment group and in the placebo group. However, the elevation of alanine aminotransferase persisted more frequently in the placebo group (all cases, p = 0.05; hepatitis B group, p = 0.03). Persistence of the hepatitis B virus infection, measured by the presence of hepatitis B early antigen and hepatitis B virus DNA (polymerase chain reaction and hybridization) at 12 months of follow-up, was observed in 1 of 33 patients in the UDCA group and in 6 of 25 patients in the placebo group (p = 0.02). Gallstones detected by entry ultrasound dissolved in four of eight cases in the UDCA group and in none of six in the placebo group.We conclude that UDCA has a beneficial effect on the course of the acute viral hepatitis. It may enhance the clearance of the hepatitis B virus and thus prevent the development of chronic hepatitis.