The enormous advances in the understanding of human anatomy, physiology and pathology in recent decades have led to ever-improving methods of disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Many of these achievements have been enabled, at least in part, by advances in ionizing radiation detectors. Radiology has been transformed by the implementation of multi-slice CT and digital x-ray imaging systems, with silver halide films now largely obsolete for many applications. Nuclear medicine has benefited from more sensitive, faster and higher-resolution detectors delivering ever-higher SPECT and PET image quality. PET/MR systems have been enabled by the development of gamma ray detectors that can operate in high magnetic fields. These huge advances in imaging have enabled equally impressive steps forward in radiotherapy delivery accuracy, with 4DCT, PET and MRI routinely used in treatment planning and online image guidance provided by cone-beam CT. The challenge of ensuring safe, accurate and precise delivery of highly complex radiation fields has also both driven and benefited from advances in radiation detectors. Detector systems have been developed for the measurement of electron, intensity-modulated and modulated arc x-ray, proton and ion beams, and around brachytherapy sources based on a very wide range of technologies. The types of measurement performed are equally wide, encompassing commissioning and quality assurance, reference dosimetry, in vivo dosimetry and personal and environmental monitoring. In this article, we briefly introduce the general physical characteristics and properties that are commonly used to describe the behaviour and performance of both discrete and imaging detectors. The physical principles of operation of calorimeters; ionization and charge detectors; semiconductor, luminescent, scintillating and chemical detectors; and radiochromic and radiographic films are then reviewed and their principle applications discussed. Finally, a general discussion of the application of detectors for x-ray nuclear medicine and ion beam imaging and dosimetry is presented.