Ectopic adrenocorticotropic secretion (EAS) is responsible for 12-17% of cases of Cushing's syndrome (CS) and covers a range of tumours, from undetectable benign lesions to widespread metastases. The syndrome is often associated with severe hypercortisolaemia, which aggravates the underlying condition. EAS requires a complete workup that includes the establishment of endogenous CS, diagnosis of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) dependency, localization of the source of ACTH secretion and rapid biochemical control of hypercortisolaemia. Dynamic endocrine tests should include inferior petrosal sinus sampling with CRH stimulation. Localization studies depend on the availability of reliable high-resolution cross-sectional imaging. This systematic review of the largest published series of patients with EAS (over 380 patients) reveals the common trends in the prevalence and management of this syndrome. The concept of 'occult' EAS has been revisited and the terms 'overt' and 'covert' EAS introduced. In addition to small cell lung carcinoma, the most common causes of ectopic EAS are bronchial carcinoids, thymic tumours, islet cell tumour of the pancreas, medullary thyroid carcinomas, and phaeochromocytomas. Their prevalence and the best localization modalities are presented. Medical and surgical management is discussed on the basis of the extensive experience of major referral centres.