Resistance to purine analogs is emerging as a major problem in the management of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Most of these patients have already been exposed to and have become refractory to alkylating agents. To define the natural history of fludarabine (Fludara) refractory patients with CLL, we reviewed the response to first salvage therapy of 147 patients who were refractory to Fludara or had a remission less than six months in duration after a Fludara-containing regimen. Thirty-three (22%) patients responded to their first salvage attempt. However, the median survival was only 10 months. Responders survived significantly longer than non-responders. The most effective salvage regimens were combinations of purine analogs and cyclophosphamide. Patients still possibly sensitive to alkylating agents had a superior response than alkylating agent resistant or naive patients. Subsequent salvage therapy was administered to 61 patients. The most promising results noted in the group were transplantation and the use of Campath-1H antibody. The major morbidity and cause of death were associated with infections. The probability of infection was most strongly associated with the response to salvage therapy. Gram-positive organisms were most commonly associated with infection. However, gram-negative bacilli or opportunistic infection such as fungi, Pneumocystis carinii, acid-fast bacilli and legionella were prominent causes of infection. Fludara-refractory patients are a poor prognosis group and need more effective therapeutic regimens and well-designed infection prophylactic regimens.