Infective endocarditis (IE) is lethal if not aggressively treated with antibiotics alone or in combination with surgery. The epidemiology of this condition has substantially changed over the past four decades, especially in industrialized countries. Once a disease that predominantly affected young adults with previously well-identified valve disease--mostly chronic rheumatic heart disease--IE now tends to affect older patients and new at-risk groups, including intravenous-drug users, patients with intracardiac devices, and patients exposed to healthcare-associated bacteremia. As a result, skin organisms (for example, Staphylococcus spp.) are now reported as the pathogen in these populations more often than oral streptococci, which still prevail in the community and in native-valve IE. Moreover, progress in molecular diagnostics has helped to improve the diagnosis of poorly cultivable pathogens, such as Bartonella spp. and Tropheryma whipplei, which are responsible for blood-culture-negative IE more often than expected. Epidemiological data indicate that IE mostly occurs independently of medico-surgical procedures, and that circumstantial antibiotic prophylaxis is likely to protect only a minute proportion of individuals at risk. Therefore, new strategies to prevent IE--including improvement of dental hygiene, decontamination of carriers of Staphylococcus aureus, vaccination, and, possibly, antiplatelet therapy--must be explored.