Venous leg ulcers represent a significant public health problem that will increase as the population ages. The elderly, the most likely to be afflicted by this condition, present the clinician with special challenges. The diagnosis of venous leg ulcers involves taking a careful history, paying attention to the existence of factors that predispose individuals to the development of chronic venous insufficiency. Clinical features of venous insufficiency are important because their recognition allows clinicians to distinguish venous from other chronic ulcers. An essential part of the assessment of all patients with chronic wounds is an evaluation of intercurrent diseases, common in the elderly, which may impact on the wound healing process. Thus, in addition to managing venous insufficiency and the wound bed, all other factors, systemic and local, that may impede healing need to be investigated and corrected if necessary. Social and psychological issues common to all chronic illnesses need to be addressed as well. This holistic approach should be standard practice and is applicable to the assessment and management of all chronic leg ulcers. This often requires coordinating a multidisciplinary team of wound healing caregivers. More work needs to be done to clarify a few issues because areas of controversy persist. Although a great deal is known about the effects of vitamin deficiency on acute wounds, less is known about chronic ulcers. Similarly, the role of vitamin supplementation in managing chronic ulcers needs further study. Guidelines are needed to determine indications for wound culturing. In addition, more study is required to establish the most effective means of obtaining quantitative cultures. However, the relationship between bacteria and chronic wound healing goes beyond simple quantitation and other factors such as bacterial virulence and host resistance. These controversial issues will be reviewed. Treatment and prevention of venous leg ulcers will be discussed in a subsequent article.