Ganciclovir is a nucleoside analogue with antiviral activity in vitro against members of the herpes group and some other DNA viruses. It has demonstrated efficacy against human cytomegalovirus infections and should be considered a first-line therapy in the treatment of life- or sight-threatening cytomegalovirus infection in immunocompromised patients. Clinical efficacy varies with the underlying aetiology of immunocompromise and the site of disease, and prompt diagnosis and early treatment initiation appear to improve the response. In patients with cytomegalovirus pneumonia, particularly bone marrow transplant recipients, concomitant administration of cytomegalovirus immune globulin may significantly improve clinical outcome. Maintenance therapy to prevent recurrence is usually required by bone marrow transplant recipients until the recovery of adequate immune function, whereas AIDS patients may require indefinite ganciclovir maintenance therapy to prevent disease progression, as ganciclovir (like other antivirals) does not eradicate latent viral infection. Haematological effects occur relatively frequently during ganciclovir administration but are usually reversible. Ganciclovir has not been directly compared with other antiviral drugs because of the absence until recently of other effective treatments. However, comparative studies with foscarnet, particularly in cytomegalovirus retinitis, will be of considerable interest. Thus, ganciclovir represents a major advance in the therapy of severe cytomegalovirus infections in immunocompromised patients. Comparative studies, and investigation of ways of reducing toxicity (intravitreal administration; concomitant use of stimulants of haematopoiesis; use in conjunction with other antivirals with differing mechanisms of action), may further expand its eventual role.