Staphylococcus aureus is a frequent cause of infections in both the community and hospital. Worldwide, the increasing resistance of this pathogen to various antibiotics complicates treatment of S aureus infections. Effective measures to prevent S aureus infections are therefore urgently needed. It has been shown that nasal carriers of S aureus have an increased risk of acquiring an infection with this pathogen. The nose is the main ecological niche where S aureus resides in human beings, but the determinants of the carrier state are incompletely understood. Eradication of S aureus from nasal carriers prevents infection in specific patient categories-eg, haemodialysis and general surgery patients. However, recent randomised clinical trials in orthopaedic and non-surgical patients failed to show the efficacy of eliminating S aureus from the nose to prevent subsequent infection. Thus we must elucidate the mechanisms behind S aureus nasal carriage and infection to be able to develop new preventive strategies. We present an overview of the current knowledge of the determinants (both human and bacterial) and risks of S aureus nasal carriage. Studies on the population dynamics of S aureus are also summarised.