Beta-D and beta-L-enantiomers of 2',3'-dideoxycytidine analogues are potent chain-terminators and antimetabolites for viral and cellular replication. Seemingly small modifications markedly alter their antiviral and toxicity patterns. This review discusses previously published and recently obtained data on the effects of 5- and 2'-fluorine substitution on the pre-steady state incorporation of 2'-deoxycytidine-5'-monophosphate analogues by HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) in light of their biological activity. The addition of fluorine at the 5-position of the pyrimidine ring altered the kinetic parameters for all nucleotides tested. Only the 5-fluorine substitution of the clinically relevant nucleosides (-)-beta-L-2',3'-dideoxy-3'-thia-5-fluorocytidine (L-FTC, Emtriva), and (+)-beta-D-2',3'-didehydro-2',3'-dideoxy-5-fluorocytidine (D-D4FC, Reverset), caused a higher overall efficiency of nucleotide incorporation during both DNA- and RNA-directed synthesis. Enhanced incorporation by RT may in part explain the potency of these nucleosides against HIV-1. In other cases, a lack of correlation between RT incorporation in enzymatic assays and antiviral activity in cell culture illustrates the importance of other cellular factors in defining antiviral potency. The substitution of fluorine at the 2' position of the deoxyribose ring negatively affects incorporation by RT indicating the steric gate of RT can detect electrostatic perturbations. Intriguing results pertaining to drug resistance have led to a better understanding of HIV-1 RT resistance mechanisms. These insights serve as a basis for understanding the mechanism of action for nucleoside analogues and, coupled with studies on other key enzymes, may lead to the more effective use of fluorine to enhance the potency and selectivity of antiviral agents.