To optimize nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (nRTI) antiretroviral therapy, 137 subjects who had been treated with didanosine monotherapy for more than 3 years in the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) 175 study were randomized to zidovudine and didanosine (dual therapy) or zidovudine, didanosine, and lamivudine (triple therapy). Evaluation of early (8 week) change in HIV plasma RNA demonstrated that addition of lamivudine and zidovudine provided significantly greater virologic suppression compared to the addition of zidovudine alone (mean decrease of 1.27 vs. 0.74 log10 copies/ml, n = 108, p = 0.007). Both dual and triple therapy provided significant long-term decreases (from study entry to mean at Weeks 40 and 48) in HIV plasma RNA: 0.62 and 0.86 log10 copies/ml, respectively (n = 110). However, the difference between treatments was not significant (p = 0.16). At 48 weeks, 26% of subjects starting study treatment had <500 copies/ml of plasma HIV RNA. The CD4 count response was greater at 4 weeks for triple versus dual therapy: a mean increase of 51 vs. 12 CD4 cells/ml3 (n = 126, p = 0.039). The difference at Weeks 40 and 48 was not significant (a 22 cell increase vs. a 1 cell decrease, n = 129, p = 0.41). Zidovudine and didanosine treatment, with or without lamivudine, was well tolerated and only 2 of 137 (1.5%) of study participants developed an AIDS-defining event over 48 weeks.