The sulphonylureas act by triggering insulin release from the pancreatic beta cell. A specific site on the adenosine triphosphate (ATP)-sensitive potassium channels is occupied by sulphonylureas leading to closure of the potassium channels and subsequent opening of calcium channels. This results in exocytosis of insulin. The meglitinides are not sulphonylureas but also occupy the sulphonylurea receptor unit coupled to the ATP-sensitive potassium channel. Glibenclamide (glyburide), gliclazide, glipizide and glimepiride are the primary sulphonylureas in current clinical use for type 2 diabetes mellitus. Glibenclamide has a higher frequency of hypoglycaemia than the other agents. With long-term use, there is a progressive decrease in the effectiveness of sulphonylureas. This loss of effect is the result of a reduction in insulin-producing capacity by the pancreatic beta cell and is also seen with other antihyperglycaemic agents. The major adverse effect of sulphonylureas is hypoglycaemia. There is a theoretical concern that sulphonylureas may affect cardiac potassium channels resulting in a diminished response to ischaemia. There are now many choices for initial therapy of type 2 diabetes in addition to sulphonylureas. Metformin and thiazolidinediones affect insulin sensitivity by independent mechanisms. Disaccharidase inhibitors reduce rapid carbohydrate absorption. No single agent appears capable of achieving target glucose levels in the majority of patients with type 2 diabetes. Combinations of agents are successful in lowering glycosylated haemoglobin levels more than with a single agent. Sulphonylureas are particularly beneficial when combined with agents such as metformin that decrease insulin resistance. Sulphonylureas can also be given with a basal insulin injection to provide enhanced endogenous insulin secretion after meals. Sulphonylureas will continue to be used both primarily and as part of combined therapy for most patients with type 2 diabetes.