Multidrug therapy is recommended for treatment of Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) bacteremia in patients with AIDS. Azithromycin, clarithromycin, rifabutin, ciprofloxacin, ethambutol, clofazimine, and amikacin have all been suggested for use in treating MAC bacteremia, but the most active combinations of these drugs have not been identified, nor has the minimum number of drugs needed for effective therapy been determined. To address the former, the in vitro bactericidal activities of all two-, three-, and four-drug combinations of these seven agents was determined by using 10 blood-derived strains of MAC isolated from patients with AIDS. The activities of the 132 drug combinations were compared by statistical analysis of survival means (analysis of variance) and further evaluated by determining the percentage of strains considered susceptible to each combination. When susceptibility was defined as a decrease in CFU of > or = 2 log10, no two- or three-drug combination and only two four-drug combinations were active against all 10 MAC strains. When a less stringent definition was applied (> or = 1 log10 decrease in CFU), 1 two-drug combinations, 9 three-drug combinations, and 31 four-drug combinations showed activity against all 10 strains. Eighteen selected drug combinations were also tested for intracellular activity in MAC-infected J774 cells. Combinations which contained amikacin as a component were considerably less active against intracellular MAC organisms than against organisms in broth. The opposite result was obtained for the combination of clarithromycin plus clofazimine.