The T-cell receptor (TCR) functions in both antigen recognition and signal transduction, which are crucial initial steps of antigen-specific immune responses. TCR integrity is vital for the induction of optimal and efficient immune responses, including the routine elimination of invading pathogens and the elimination of modified cells and molecules. Of the TCR subunits, the zeta-chain has a key role in receptor assembly, expression and signalling. Downregulation of TCR zeta-chain expression and impairment of T-cell function have been shown for T cells isolated from hosts with various chronic pathologies, including cancer, and autoimmune and infectious diseases. This review summarizes studies of the various pathologies that show this phenomenon and provides new insights into the mechanism responsible for downregulation of zeta-chain expression, its relevance and its clinical implications.