Zalcitabine is a dideoxynucleoside antiretroviral agent that is phosphorylated to the active metabolite 2',3'-dideoxycytidine 5'-triphosphate (ddCTP) within both uninfected and HIV-infected cells. At therapeutic concentrations, ddCTP inhibits HIV replication by inhibiting the enzyme reverse transcriptase and terminating elongation of the proviral DNA chain. The results of 3 large pivotal trials comparing zidovudine monotherapy with combination therapy have now clearly established that zalcitabine plus zidovudine combination with an improvement in viral load and CD4+ cell count compared with zidovudine monotherapy. More recently, clinical end-point and surrogate marker data have established the efficacy of zalcitabine in combination with the protease inhibitor saquinavir in zidovudine-experienced patients. Other studies have demonstrated the utility of zalcitabine in combination with ritonavir and the nucleoside analogue lamivudine. Importantly, early use of zalcitabine in the treatment sequence does not appear to limit the therapeutic efficacy of subsequent therapy with other nucleoside analogues such as lamivudine. Peripheral neuropathy is the most frequent dose-limiting adverse effect associated with zalcitabine therapy and is generally reversible on discontinuation of treatment. Stomatitis and mouth ulcers may occur frequently with zalcitabine therapy but tend to resolve with continuing treatment. Haematological toxicity, which is a common adverse effect associated with zidovudine, is reported infrequently with zalcitabine. Overall, combination therapy with zalcitabine plus zidovudine or saquinavir has been shown to have a tolerability profile comparable to that of either agent alone, although treatment with zidovudine plus zalcitabine was associated with a significant increase in the incidence of haematological toxicity compared with zidovudine monotherapy in one study. Therefore, current data suggest that zalcitabine is a useful antiretroviral agent for inclusion as a component of initial double combination therapy with zidovudine or as part of triple combination therapy including zidovudine plus a protease inhibitor in the management of patients with HIV infection.