BACKGROUND: Chronic heart failure is a major cause of morbidity and mortality world-wide. Diuretics are regarded as the first-line treatment for patients with congestive heart failure since they provide symptomatic relief. The effects of diuretics on disease progression and survival remain unclear. OBJECTIVES: To assess the harms and benefits of diuretics for chronic heart failure SEARCH STRATEGY: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (Issue 2 2004), MEDLINE 1966-2004, EMBASE 1980-2004 and HERDIN database. We hand searched pertinent journals and reference lists of papers were inspected. We also contacted manufacturers and researchers in the field. SELECTION CRITERIA: Only double-blinded randomised controlled trials of diuretic therapy comparing one diuretic with placebo, or one diuretic with another active agent (e.g. ACE inhibitors, digoxin) in patients with chronic heart failure were eligible for inclusion. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two reviewers independently abstracted the data and assessed the eligibility and methodological quality of each trial. Extracted data were entered into the Review Manager 4.2 computer software, and analysed by determining the odds ratio for dichotomous data, and difference in means for continuous data, of the treated group compared with controls. The likelihood of heterogeneity of the study population was assessed by the Chi-square test. If there was no evidence of statistical heterogeneity and pooling of results was clinically appropriate, a combined estimate was obtained using the fixed-effects model. MAIN RESULTS: We included 14 trials (525 participants), 7 were placebo-controlled, and 7 compared diuretics against other agents such as ACE inhibitors or digoxin. We analysed the data for mortality and for worsening heart failure. Mortality data were available in 3 of the placebo-controlled trials (202 participants). Mortality was lower for participants treated with diuretics than for placebo, odds ratio (OR) for death 0.24, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.07 to 0.83; P = 0.02. Admission for worsening heart failure was reduced in those taking diuretics in two trials (169 participants), OR 0.07 (95% CI 0.01 to 0.52; P = 0.01). In four trials comparing diuretics to active control (91 participants), diuretics improved exercise capacity in participants with CHF, difference in means WMD 0.72 , 95% CI 0.40 to 1.04; P < 0.0001. AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: The available data from several small trials show that in patients with chronic heart failure, conventional diuretics appear to reduce the risk of death and worsening heart failure compared to placebo. Compared to active control, diuretics appear to improve exercise capacity.