Innate immune receptors have a key role in immune surveillance by sensing microorganisms and initiating protective immune responses. However, the innate immune system is a classic 'double-edged sword' that can overreact to pathogens, which can have deleterious effects and lead to clinical manifestations. Recent studies have unveiled the complexity of innate immune receptors that function as sensors of Plasmodium spp. in the vertebrate host. This Review highlights the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which Plasmodium infection is sensed by different families of innate immune receptors. We also discuss how these events mediate both host resistance to infection and the pathogenesis of malaria.