The choice of initial antiretroviral regimen for treating people infected with HIV is crucial to successful long-term control of virus replication. Potent antiretroviral therapy substantially suppresses viral replication as measured by plasma HIV RNA levels to below limits of detection: the current standard of care is usually a combination of at least three drugs and frequently includes a protease inhibitor, or alternatively a non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (nnRTI). Patients who have low CD4+ cell counts (< or = 200 CD4+ cells/mm3) or high plasma HIV RNA levels (> or = 100,000 copies/ml) may not attain maximal suppression of HIV replication when treated with current regimens and may require more aggressive therapy. In contrast, patients with relatively normal CD4+ cell counts and low to non-measurable levels of plasma HIV RNA over prolonged periods (i.e., slow or non-progressors) may not require immediate antiretroviral therapy. These individuals should reconsider treatment when either the CD4+ cell count declines or the HIV RNA level increases. Early and potent antiretroviral therapy should provide more durable virological and clinical benefits for many patients, especially if they receive sufficient counselling and support to aid adherence to the treatment regimen. The optimum time to initiate antiretroviral therapy is not well established, but to maximise the recovery of the immune system and the virological and clinical benefits, initiation of therapy is generally recommended for individuals who have symptoms or those with plasma HIV RNA levels > 5000-10,000 copies/ml, or CD4+ cell counts < 500 cells/mm3. The current choice of initial antiretroviral regimens includes two nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (nRTI) with a potent, well-tolerated HIV-1 protease inhibitor or nnRTI. Recent short-term activity data (24-week comparative clinical trial data) indicate that regimens combining three nRTI, including abacavir, could also be considered. Other emerging combination regimens for consideration include two HIV-1 protease inhibitors with one or two nRTI, or a combination of drugs from all current categories (e.g., nRTI with a nnRTI and HIV-1 protease inhibitor). The goal of antiretroviral therapy is to maximise suppression of HIV replication and thereby prevent or delay viral resistance, restore immunological function and improve clinical outcome. Since evolution of the virus towards resistance can occur with plasma HIV RNA levels between 50 and 500 copies/ml, current standards for best suppression of HIV replication have shifted to declines in plasma HIV RNA to < 50 copies/ml. In addition, non-adherence to any regimen is associated with the greatest risk for virological failure. Therefore, both the decision to initiate therapy and the choice of initial therapy should be carefully weighted and balanced with the long-term implications of antiretroviral therapy.