Contrast echocardiography was used before cardiac catheterisation in 37 patients with atrial septal defect and a left-to-right shunt and in 18 patients with a raised right atrial and ventricular pressure to assess the contrast echo effect in the inferior vena cava. Using two dimensional contrast apical echocardiography we found a negative contrast echo effect within the right atrium in many but not all patients with atrial defect. Contrast echoes entering the inferior vena cava during presystole or early to mid-diastole were detected in patients with heart disease causing raised right atrial and ventricular pressures and also in all patients with atrial septal defect. No contrast echo effect in the inferior vena cava was detected in 10 normal subjects. The sensitivity of this contrast pattern in the inferior vena cava in diagnosing atrial septal defect was 100%. When other conditions causing raised right atrial pressure were excluded, the specificity and predictive accuracy were 100% for both. The presystolic contrast echo effect in the inferior vena cava, semiquantitatively graded, correlated with the size of the shunt determined by oximetry. In 20 patients re-examined after the surgical correction of the atrial septal defect, no presystolic contrast echo effect was detected in the inferior vena cava. Contrast echocardiography of the inferior vena cava is a valuable and reliable method for diagnosing atrial septal defect with left-to-right shunt.