Influenza viruses are a major pathogen of both humans and animals. Recent studies using gene-knockout mice have led to an in-depth understanding of the innate sensors that detect influenza virus infection in a variety of cell types. Signalling downstream of these sensors induces distinct sets of effector mechanisms that block virus replication and promote viral clearance by inducing innate and adaptive immune responses. In this Review, we discuss the various ways in which the innate immune system uses pattern recognition receptors to detect and respond to influenza virus infection. We consider whether the outcome of innate sensor stimulation promotes antiviral resistance or disease tolerance, and propose rational treatment strategies for the acute respiratory disease that is caused by influenza virus infection.