Guidelines are an important means by which professional associations and governments have sought to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of disease management for infectious diseases. Prescribing of initial antibiotic therapy for community-acquired respiratory tract infections (RTIs) is primarily empiric and physicians may often have a limited appreciation of bacterial resistance. Recent guidelines for managing RTIs have adopted a more evidence-based approach. This process has highlighted important gaps in the existing knowledge base, e.g. concerning the impact of resistance on the effectiveness of oral antibiotics for outpatient community-acquired pneumonia and the level of resistance that should prompt a change in empiric prescribing. In upper RTIs, the challenge is to identify patients in whom antibiotic therapy is warranted. Concentrated, sustained efforts are needed to secure physicians' use of guidelines. The information should be distilled into a simple format available at the point of prescribing and supported by other behavioral change techniques (e.g. educational outreach visits). Advances in information technology offer the promise of more dynamic, computer-assisted forms of guidance. Thus, RTI prescribing guidelines and other prescribing support systems should help control bacterial resistance in the community. However, their effect on resistance patterns is largely unknown and there is an urgent need for collaborative research in this area. Rapid, cost-effective diagnostic techniques are also required and new antibiotics will continue to have a role in disease management.