Our objective was to assess the risks and benefits of carotid endarterectomy, primarily in terms of stroke prevention, in patients with recently symptomatic carotid stenosis. This multicentre, randomised controlled trial enrolled 3024 patients. We enrolled men and women of any age, with some degree of carotid stenosis, who within the previous 6 months had had at least one transient or mild symptomatic ischaemic vascular event in the distribution of one or both carotid arteries. Between 1981 and 1994, we allocated 1811 (60%) patients to surgery and 1213 (40%) to control (surgery to be avoided for as long as possible). Follow-up was until the end of 1995 (mean 6.1 years), and the main analyses were by intention to treat. The overall outcome (major stroke or death) occurred in 669 (37.0%) surgery-group patients and 442 (36.5%) control-group patients. The risk of major stroke or death complicating surgery (7.0%) did not vary substantially with severity of stenosis. On the other hand, the risk of major ischaemic stroke ipsilateral to the unoperated symptomatic carotid artery increased with severity of stenosis, particularly above about 70-80% of the original luminal diameter, but only for 2-3 years after randomisation. On average, the immediate risk of surgery was worth trading off against the long-term risk of stroke without surgery when the stenosis was greater than about 80% diameter; the Kaplan-Meier estimate of the frequency of a major stroke or death at 3 years was 26.5% for the control group and 14.9% for the surgery group, an absolute benefit from surgery of 11.6%. However, consideration of variations in risk with age and sex modified this simple rule based on stenosis severity. We present a graphical procedure that should improve the selection of patients for surgery. Carotid endarterectomy is indicated for most patients with a recent non-disabling carotid-territory ischaemic event when the symptomatic stenosis is greater than about 80%. Age and sex should also be taken into account in decisions on whether to operate.