The surfaces of all vertebrate cells are decorated with a dense and complex array of sugar chains, which are mostly attached to proteins and lipids. Most soluble secreted proteins are also similarly decorated with such glycans. Sialic acids are a diverse family of sugar units with a nine-carbon backbone that are typically found attached to the outermost ends of these chains. Given their location and ubiquitous distribution, sialic acids can mediate or modulate a wide variety of physiological and pathological processes. This review considers some examples of their established and newly emerging roles in aspects of human physiology and disease.