Bacteria are present throughout the gastrointestinal tract, but their pattern and concentration vary greatly. Probiotics are living organisms that supply beneficial health effects to the host. So far the beneficial effects of probiotics have been shown, almost exclusively, under poorly defined experimental conditions. There are little convincing data from well-designed, double-blind controlled trials supporting health-promoting effects. The use of probiotics to treat gastrointestinal infections has produced contrasting results. Apart from information on rotavirus infection in children, there is no convincing evidence from controlled studies on the efficacy of probiotics in the prevention or treatment of infective diarrhoea. However, experimental and clinical studies suggest that there are potential therapeutic roles for probiotics in the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases. This review focuses on the available data concerning the mechanisms of action of probiotics, and on the results from clinical studies using probiotics to treat infective diarrhoea and inflammatory bowel disease.