The incidence of gonorrhoea is again rising in developed countries and a high disease rate has been maintained in less developed regions for a number of years. The need not only for treatment of the individual but also for control of gonorrhoea at a community level has increased significantly following recognition of its role in the amplification of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) transmission. A sustainable decrease in the incidence of gonorrhoea and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) requires an integrated approach combining improved prevention, better diagnosis and optimal treatment. Effective antibiotic treatment is an essential element of this approach. However, antibiotic treatment of gonorrhoea has been severely hampered by the development of antibiotic resistance in Neisseria gonorrhoeae, to the extent that many therapies are no longer effective. Those treatments that retain acceptable efficacy are often unaffordable where they are most needed. Penicillins and tetracyclines should no longer be used in gonococcal disease, there are limitations on the effectiveness of newer macrolides and spectinomycin and in many parts of the world quinolones have been withdrawn from schedules for the treatment of gonorrhoea. Of all the current agents used to treat all forms of gonococcal disease, only the third generation cephalosporins (most notably ceftriaxone) have retained their efficacy; however, decreased susceptibility to these antibiotics has also appeared. Continuing reliance on antibiotic treatment for controlling gonorrhoea in the absence of other necessary approaches will see a further deterioration in the situation. In these circumstances the possibility that gonorrhoea will be untreatable becomes more real.