Phagocyte-derived reactive oxygen and nitrogen species are of crucial importance for host resistance to microbial pathogens. Decades of research have provided a detailed understanding of the regulation, generation and actions of these molecular mediators, as well as their roles in resisting infection. However, differences of opinion remain with regard to their host specificity, cell biology, sources and interactions with one another or with myeloperoxidase and granule proteases. More than a century after Metchnikoff first described phagocytosis, and more than four decades after the discovery of the burst of oxygen consumption that is associated with microbial killing, the seemingly elementary question of how phagocytes inhibit, kill and degrade microorganisms remains controversial. This review updates the reader on these concepts and the topical questions in the field.