Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) is ubiquitous. It is found in various freshwater and saltwater sources around the world, including hot water pipes. Although the organism was identified in the 1890s, its potential to cause human disease was only recognized 50 years later. Only a minority of people exposed to the organism will acquire MAC lung disease, usually those with underlying lung disease or immunosuppression. MAC may, however, cause progressive parenchymal lung disease and bronchiectasis in patients without underlying lung disease, particularly in middle-aged and elderly women. Preliminary data suggest that the interferon-gamma pathways may be deficient in elderly women with MAC lung disease. Other groups of patients who are more likely to harbor MAC in their lungs include patients with a cystic fibrosis or an abnormal alpha(1)-antiproteinase gene and patients with certain chest wall abnormalities. Treatment results continue to be disappointing, and the mortality of patients with MAC lung disease remains high. A PubMed search identified 38 reports of the treatment of MAC lung disease. Apart from the British Thoracic Society study, the only published controlled investigation, the studies published since 1994 have included a macrolide, either clarithromycin or azithromycin, usually in combination with ethambutol and a rifamycin. If success is defined as eradication of the organism without relapse over a period of several years after treatment has been discontinued, the reported treatment success rate with the macrolide containing regimens is approximately 55%. The prolonged treatment period, side effects, and possibly reinfection rather than relapse are responsible for the high failure rate.