Objectives In recent years, antibiotic resistance has emerged as an important global problem. The major goal of this review is to update important issues pertaining to antibiotic resistance, with an emphasis on antibiotic resistance involving community-acquired respiratory pathogens. In addition, this review examines potential reasons why antibiotic resistance has increased in recent years, how clinicians can better understand commonly used laboratory antibiotic resistance tests, and possible solutions to the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance. The article emphasizes the diagnosis, therapy, and prevention of antibiotic-resistant infections. Data sources We identified relevant English-language articles through MEDLINE search (1966 to March 1998). All articles related to antibiotic resistance and the scope of the articles included original investigative articles, reviews, letters, and editorials. In addition, we selected additional references from the bibliographies of the identified articles. Study selection We selected articles for detailed review if they provided direct insight into the cause of antibiotic resistance, testing for antibiotic resistance, or the treatment of antibiotic resistance. Most, but not all, of the articles selected pertained to antibiotic resistance and respiratory tract infections. We performed a detailed review on approximately 40% of the originally selected articles. Results Multiple factors that play a significant role in the development of antibiotic resistance include the overuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals, situations such as day care that enhance transmission via frequent close personal contact, and widespread dissemination of resistant strains via global travel. Most respiratory pathogens have developed resistance to commonly used antibiotics either by producing beta-lactamase or by altering binding site proteins. Conclusions In many regions of the United States, the level of antibiotic resistance has impacted the clinical management of common respiratory pathogens. Future efforts to curtail antibiotic resistance will require a concerted effort in multiple areas, particularly enhanced epidemiologic surveillance to better detect resistance trends, judicious use of antibiotics, and new drug development.