BACKGROUND: Enhanced production of reactive oxygen species may play a pathogenic role in alcoholic liver injury. AIMS: To investigate whether various antioxidant parameters in blood are affected in different stages of alcoholic liver disease and how specific the changes are relative to non-alcoholic cirrhosis. METHODS: Patients with alcohol abuse without cirrhosis (n=14), with alcoholic cirrhosis [Child-Pugh scores A (n=9), B (n=5) and C (n=18)] and with non-alcoholic cirrhosis [Child-Pugh score C (n=6)] and healthy controls (n=13) were studied. Levels of reduced glutathione and glutathione peroxidase activity in blood, erythrocytic superoxide dismutase activity and carotenoids, alpha-tocopherol and malondialdehyde in plasma were measured. RESULTS: Levels of reduced glutathione were significantly decreased in Child-Pugh score C cirrhotics, alcoholic or not in origin, whereas oxidized glutathione and glutathione peroxidase activity were not affected. Superoxide dismutase activity and alpha-tocopherol levels were not significantly different in the various groups. Carotenoid levels were significantly lower in alcoholic cirrhotics (Child-Pugh score C) vs. controls. Malondialdehyde levels were elevated only in cirrhotics Child-Pugh score C, alcoholic or non-alcoholic. CONCLUSIONS: Levels of reduced glutathione and malondialdehyde reflect the degree of liver impairment, more than the relation with alcohol intake. Decreases in several antioxidant levels are not specific to alcoholic liver injury.