The purpose of this study was to review the preclinical and clinical literature relevant to the efficacy and safety of anabolic androgen steroid therapy for palliative treatment of severe weight loss associated with chronic diseases. Data sources were published literature identified from the Medline database from January 1966 to December 2000, bibliographic references, and textbooks. Reports from preclinical and clinical trials were selected. Study designs and results were extracted from trial reports. Statistical evaluation or meta-analysis of combined results was not attempted. Androgenic anabolic steroids (AAS) are widely prescribed for the treatment of male hypogonadism; however, they may play a significant role in the treatment of other conditions as well, such as cachexia associated with human immunodeficiency virus, cancer, burns, renal and hepatic failure, and anemia associated with leukemia or kidney failure. A review of the anabolic effects of androgens and their efficacy in the treatment of these conditions is provided. In addition, the numerous and sometimes serious side effects that have been known to occur with androgen use are reviewed. Although the threat of various side effects is present, AAS therapy appears to have a favorable anabolic effect on patients with chronic diseases and muscle catabolism. We recommend that AAS can be used for the treatment of patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome wasting and in severely catabolic patients with severe burns. Preliminary data in renal failure-associated wasting are also positive. Advantages and disadvantages should be weighed carefully when comparing AAS therapy to other weight-gaining measures. Although a conservative approach to the use of AAS in patients with chronic diseases is still recommended, the utility of AAS therapy in the attenuation of severe weight loss associated with disease states such as cancer, postoperative recovery, and wasting due to pulmonary and hepatic disease should be more thoroughly investigated.