Diabetes and oxidative stress concur to cardiac myocyte death in various experimental settings. We assessed whether N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC), an antioxidant and glutathione precursor, has a protective role in a rat model of streptozotocin (STZ)-induced diabetes and in isolated myocytes exposed to high glucose (HG). Diabetic rats were treated with NAC (0.5 g/kg per day) or vehicle for 3 months. At sacrifice left ventricle (LV) myocyte number and size, collagen deposition and reactive oxygen species (ROS) were measured by quantitative histological methods. Diabetes reduced LV myocyte number by 29% and increased myocyte volume by 20% compared to non-diabetic controls. NAC protected from myocyte loss (+25% vs. untreated diabetics, P < 0.05) and reduced reactive hypertrophy (-16% vs. untreated diabetics, P < 0.05). Perivascular fibrosis was high in diabetic rats (+88% vs. control, P < 0.001) but prevented by NAC. ROS production and fraction of ROS-positive cardiomyocyte nuclei were drastically raised in diabetic rats (2.4- and 5.1-fold vs. control, P < 0.001) and normalized by NAC. In separate experiments, isolated adult rat ventricular myocytes were incubated in a medium containing high concentrations of glucose (HG, 25 mM) +/- 0.01 mM NAC; myocyte survival (Trypan blue exclusion and apoptosis by TUNEL) and glutathione content were evaluated. The number of dead and apoptotic myocytes increased five and 6.7-fold in HG and glutathione decreased by 48% (P < 0.05). NAC normalized cell death and apoptosis and prevented glutathione loss. NAC effectively protects from hyperglycemia-induced myocyte cell death and compensatory hypertrophy through direct scavenging of ROS and replenishment of the intracellular glutathione content.