Oxic environments are hazardous. Molecular oxygen adventitiously abstracts electrons from many redox enzymes, continuously forming intracellular superoxide and hydrogen peroxide. These species can destroy the activities of metalloenzymes and the integrity of DNA, forcing organisms to protect themselves with scavenging enzymes and repair systems. Nevertheless, elevated levels of oxidants quickly poison bacteria, and both microbial competitors and hostile eukaryotic hosts exploit this vulnerability by assaulting these bacteria with peroxides or superoxide-forming antibiotics. In response, bacteria activate elegant adaptive strategies. In this Review, I summarize our current knowledge of oxidative stress in Escherichia coli, the model organism for which our understanding of damage and defence is most well developed.