Immune responses participate in every phase of atherosclerosis. There is increasing evidence that both adaptive and innate immunity tightly regulate atherogenesis. Although improved treatment of hyperlipidaemia reduces the risk for cardiac and cerebral complications of atherosclerosis, these remain among the most prevalent of diseases and will probably become the most common cause of death globally within 15 years. This Review focuses on the role of immune mechanisms in the formation and activation of atherosclerotic plaques, and also includes a discussion of the use of inflammatory markers for predicting cardiovascular events. We also outline possible future targets for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis.