IgM antibody against hepatitis B core antigen (IgM anti-HBc), a marker of recent hepatitis B virus infection, was sought by radioimmunoassay in sera diluted 1/4000 from 376 patients presenting to four centres in Italy with acute, apparently type B hepatitis (hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) positive). In 320 patients (85%) a positive IgM anti-HBc test result confirmed that hepatitis was due to primary infection with hepatitis B virus. In the remaining 56 patients absence of the IgM marker indicated that they were previously unrecognised long term carriers of HBsAg. Further serum analysis often showed delta infection and occasionally hepatitis A or cytomegalovirus infection as the true cause of their illness. After six to eight months circulating HBsAg persisted in 38 of 45 patients (84%) without IgM anti-HBc but in only six of 150 patients (4%) with the IgM antibody (p less than 0.0001). A negative IgM anti-HBc test result in patients with acute HBsAg positive hepatitis points to a factor other than hepatitis B virus as the cause of the liver damage and predicts the carriage of HBsAg.