Targeted delivery of 5-aminosalicylic acid to the small intestine and colon by controlled-release or azo-bonded compounds potentially offers treatment for ileal Crohn's disease as well as ulcerative colitis. The pharmacokinetics of sulphasalazine and aminosalicylate derivatives have been discussed and potential modes of action reviewed. These include actions on epithelial cell-surface receptors, cellular events and barrier function. Evidence for an influence of salicylates on circulating and tissue inflammatory cells is presented, as well as actions on adhesion molecules, chemotactic peptides, eicosanoids, cytokines and reactive oxygen metabolites. The precise mechanism remains unknown, but a pluripotential mode of action is an advantage when influencing the network of events that constitutes chronic inflammation. Controlled clinical trials of salicylates in ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease have been reviewed. Their main role remains as maintenance therapy for ulcerative colitis, but relatively high doses of controlled-release preparations benefit patients with ileal Crohn's disease, following resection, or those who have recently relapsed. Finally, issues of clinical relevance have been addressed, including the choice of salicylate and safety, indications for initiating therapy, dose and duration of treatment, role in managing refractory colitis and future developments.