The discovery that submicron-sized extracellular vesicles (EVs) are generated by both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells might have a profound effect on experimental and clinical sciences, and could pave the way for new strategies to combat various diseases. EVs are carriers of pathogen-associated and damage-associated molecular patterns, cytokines, autoantigens and tissue-degrading enzymes. In addition to a possible role in the pathogenesis of a number of inflammatory conditions, such as infections and autoimmune diseases, EVs, including microvesicles (also known as microparticles), exosomes and apoptotic vesicles, have therapeutic potential and might be used as biomarkers for inflammatory diseases. Therefore, molecular diagnostics and targeted therapy could benefit from expanding knowledge in the field. In this Review, we summarize important developments and propose that extracellular vesicles could be used as therapeutic vehicles and as targets for the treatment and prevention of inflammatory diseases.